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Another Voice: Don't look to the past in picking a site for train station

By James E. Carr

Listening to all of the discussion regarding the proposed new train station tells me that we are headed for a disaster. I am reminded of the process that cost IBM the office copy machine market.

Offered an opportunity to produce the new Xerox copy machine by its inventor, Joe Wilson, IBM hired a big-name consulting firm to help decide if there was a market for such a device. Following a yearlong study, the consultants said there was no demand for a copy machine – offices already made copies with carbon paper.

I fear that we are about to get similar results from planners and their supporters who want a downtown train station. A downtown train station sounds good if you are looking over your shoulder for examples from the past.

We once had four downtown train stations as well as a comprehensive trolley network that provided fast transportation for the region’s citizens. Unfortunately, the past is seldom a good model for the future. We are on the cusp of changes that will dramatically revolutionize the ways we live and travel.

The arrival of autonomous vehicles will greatly reduce the need to own and park private autos. Downtowns will see even more renovations and revitalization as autonomous cars restructure our downtown and, indeed, our city.

Some still think these changes are in the distant future. Not so. They are here now, at the moment in small numbers, but like the smartphone, poised to change our lives.

Downtown Buffalo has many advantages, but these do not include its rail lines. Few who want to take a train would ever get to it by bus or subway. When you are carrying luggage you want to go directly from your home to the train, not walk through the snow to some corner and wait for a bus. People who want to take a train have no interest in passing through downtown.

The small number of people who use the Exchange Street station to go to Toronto would be equally well served by another location.

Rather than thinking about adding more trains to downtown, we should be thinking about removing existing rail lines that cut Buffalo off from its waterfront and do not add to the quality of life in the city.

How much more accessible and enjoyable would Canalside and other portions of the city waterfront be if a waterfront rail line became a linear park, our response to New York City’s High Line?

The Central Terminal is located on the main intercity rail line, meaning there is no need to back the train, which no railroad wants to do. The Central Terminal has ample room for intercity bus lines and for autonomous vehicle staging and repair, providing needed jobs for the city’s East Side. It will remove from the city center trains and vehicles that have no real need to be there.

Buffalo’s four major downtown train stations are all gone. There is a reason for that. Let’s look forward, not backward.

James E.  Carr, of Buffalo, is a retired urban planner.

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