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Trump budget could nix Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited, alter rail station debate

If President Trump gets his way, funding for Amtrak’s long-distance trains, like the Lake Shore Limited that serves Buffalo, will end this fiscal year.

So might the debate over where to build the city’s new rail station.

[RELATED: Central Terminal vs. Canalside: Where to put a new Buffalo train station?]

It all revolves around the Trump administration’s new budget proposal nixing federally funded trains like the Lake Shore Limited traveling through Buffalo each day from New York/Boston to Chicago and back. The Lake Shore Limited currently uses the Buffalo-Depew station but would operate out of Central Terminal if the East Side landmark is ultimately selected for revitalization by a new station siting committee slated to issue its report by April 26.

Now Trump’s Amtrak proposal gains special significance, surfacing in the midst of a community debate over where to locate a replacement for Amtrak’s Exchange Street Station in downtown Buffalo. Central Terminal proponents emphasize that the art deco complex that served Buffalo’s rail travelers from 1929 to 1979 could handle the New York/Boston to Chicago and Chicago to New York/Boston trains, while they cannot efficiently operate downtown.

Serving the Lake Shore has ranked as a significant argument for Central Terminal champions like Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who said Thursday that he opposes the Trump budget cuts and will not let the funding threat alter his position.

“Buffalo should make important, generational decisions about its future with purpose and confidence,” he said. “We should not be timidly looking over our shoulder and over-reacting to every conceivable negative contingency.”

[PHOTO GALLERY: Inside Buffalo's Central Terminal, an art deco marvel in decay]

Congress, meanwhile, has historically wielded significant influence on Amtrak funding. Higgins is hoping it will again save the Lake Shore and other long-distance trains that offer some isolated communities in the West their only form of public transportation.

The Lake Shore Limited currently uses the Buffalo-Depew station, above, but would operate out of the Central Terminal if the East Side landmark is ultimately selected for revitalization. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, a major Trump backer, did not offer a similar commitment.

“The president’s budget is a starting point in the budget process designed to emphasize his priorities,” Collins said. “As I’ve said time and again, Congress will have a great deal to say about how federal dollars are spent. As the appropriations process unfolds, Western New Yorkers can count on me to stand up for the priorities we share as a community.”

Nevertheless, Congress has almost always blocked similar proposals typically offered by Republican administrations throughout Amtrak’s 46-year history. Bruce B. Becker of East Amherst, vice president of operations for the National Railroad Passengers Association and former president of the Empire State Passengers Association, said even many GOP members of Congress have balked at cutting service to their districts.

“Historically, there has been bipartisan support for long-distance trains especially in many districts where small communities have no other form of public transportation,” he said. “Even folks in the White House staff say it is possible Congress will modify the proposal, and we hope Congress will take our side on this.”

He cautioned that “no guarantees” of restoration can ever be expected, prompting his organization to launch a campaign aimed at rallying the public on behalf of long-distance trains. Becker also acknowledged Buffalo’s “unique position” stemming from the current debate over where to build a new station.

“Indeed, if there is no train to Chicago, that certainly would change the complexion of the whole discussion,” he said. “But we don’t think the selection committee should base its decision on that.”

His group reported that 382,000 passengers used the Lake Shore last year, which serves most New York stations as well as Erie, Pa., Cleveland and Toledo en route to Chicago.

Higgins pointed out that when he first reported to Congress in 2005, the budget advanced by then-President George W. Bush for fiscal year 2006 similarly proposed eliminating federal funding for long-distance Amtrak service. As a member of the minority, Higgins joined a bipartisan coalition that successfully preserved the funding.

His position has not changed.

“I am opposed to the president’s proposed cuts to Amtrak,” he said, “and will work to see that this important service is preserved.”

Higgins and his congressional colleagues will address a proposal that will cut funding for 15 long-distance trains like the Lake Shore, which operates with sleeping and dining cars as it travels the “water level route” between the two big cities. Such trains traditionally lose more money than the shorter-distance trains that are subsidized by Albany and mostly operate entirely within New York State.

They include four other state-supported trains in and out of Buffalo daily that stop both at Depew and Exchange Street. Theoretically, however, the case for an East Side facility like Central Terminal or suburban station like Depew would weaken if the Lake Shore trains were discontinued.

Higgins: Buffalo is about to make 'big, big mistake' backing Canalside for train station

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