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Viewpoints: Demographics should help decide site for train station

By Mike Peroha

Five years ago, I wrote a Viewpoints article titled, “Gateway to the future.” In it, I proposed building an intermodal transportation center – the Buffalo-Niagara Gateway Center – as a component of a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills downtown.

In the past five years, much has happened. The Bills’ founder and owner, Ralph Wilson Jr., died, and ownership of the Bills, after much angst and uncertainty, passed to Terry and Kim Pegula; the fruits of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative are undeniable; the Medical Campus has gained national prominence; and HarborCenter and Canalside are now major attractions in the downtown landscape. There is a new, palpable sense of optimism in the future of the city.

Soon the site selection committee will announce its decision on where to build a new Amtrak train station. The alternatives are down to two – build a new station downtown or renovate the Central Terminal. There are good arguments and passionate support for both locations, but building the station downtown is the best choice, because it will have both greater immediate and long-term economic impact and benefit the largest number of people, while building on the momentum of all the positive changes that have taken place in recent years.

This is so because building an intermodal transportation center downtown would position Buffalo to take advantage of a demographic trend of paramount importance for the city’s future – the fact that members of the millennial generation, having identified the city as a desirable place to live, have been moving to Buffalo in greater numbers than other Rust Belt cities.

In a recent News article, “Believe it: The new Buffalo is hot destination for millennials,” Howard Zemsky, president of Empire State Development Corp., was quoted concerning this phenomenon. “The biggest difference that has happened in this region statistically is that we are way ahead, on a percentage basis, in change of growth of young people. It’s the most significant telling metric, in my opinion, that we have. … Without that, we have no future, period.”

It is an oft-repeated truism that demographics are destiny, and if this trend holds, Buffalo’s future looks promising indeed. Millennials – young adults at an age when most people are establishing careers and families – are now the largest generation. These are people who are setting down roots and precisely the demographic group that can reverse the trend of population decline and set Buffalo on a path of renewed growth. Making Buffalo more appealing to members of this generation must be a primary focus of city planners and decision-makers.

In the initial version of its comprehensive study on the future of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, Beyond Traffic: 2045 Trends and Choices, the U.S. Department of Transportation made an interesting observation concerning millennials. The study stated, “The total number of licensed drivers under the age of 34 actually declined between 2001 and 2012, despite an increasing population. Many are choosing to live in cities where they can bike, walk and take public transport to work or school.” In the final version of the study, released this January, the DOT concluded that “it is possible that Americans, particularly millennials, will continue – as a matter of preference – reducing trips by car in favor of more trips by transit and intercity passenger rail.”

Closer to home, the results of a poll of Erie County voters, reported in The News in 2015, confirmed the urban outlook of millennials in the area. This group overwhelmingly prefers, by two-thirds, a new stadium downtown. Donald Levy, director of the Siena Research Institute, which conducted the poll, concluded, “Younger people were simply more likely to say a downtown stadium would be good for the team and the community. They want Buffalo to be a world-class city. And for that to happen, you’ve got to have world-class sports.”

To that I would add that Buffalo needs world-class public transportation. Cuomo has made rebuilding the upstate economy a priority and made Buffalo a centerpiece of that effort. His proposal, announced during his State of the State address at the University at Buffalo in January, to extend Metro Rail to the UB North Campus and the DL&W Terminal represents the type of vision that is needed.

At the federal level, the new administration in Washington has championed the idea of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and is expected to introduce legislation to this effect later this year. The present moment, therefore, represents an unprecedented opportunity to realize capital infrastructure projects that can serve as springboards for economic growth in the 21st century. City, county and state officials should commission public polling to ascertain more precisely what the public wants in this regard and to use those results, with input from community leaders, to have a long-range infrastructure plan ready that puts Buffalo at the head of the line for federal infrastructure funding.

Studies and public polling suggest that younger people want greater investment in public transportation and want a new stadium to be built downtown. The state-sponsored AECOM study identified two potential downtown stadium sites that are well suited for an intermodal transportation center that includes an intercity train station – the Exchange Street and the Cobblestone District sites – but noted that “more than any of the other proposed sites, the Cobblestone District site will benefit from available public and mass transit. Within a block of the site, there is access to both a light rail station and an Amtrak commuter station, creating a potential intermodal hub.”

The decision before the site selection committee, therefore, is critical in making a potential intermodal transportation center a reality, and the location of the new train station needs to be downtown in the vicinity of one of these two sites, with the Cobblestone District site being the best.

The decisions made now will shape the future of the city for decades to come. The turnaround of Buffalo to date has been remarkable, and its resurgence can serve as a model of how a city reinvents itself for the 21st century. Let’s “get it right” this time by building an intermodal transportation center that courts millennials and prepares for the return of the Bills to the heart of the city.

Mike Peroha, a former Williamsville resident, is a contracting officer with Military Sealift Command, a component of the Department of Defense’s Transportation Command, at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.

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