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State to decide location of a new train station downtown

Downtown was picked Thursday for a new train station. Now, it will be up to the state Department of Transportation to determine its exact location.

Local officials on the Buffalo Train Station Selection Committee expect a prompt decision.

"The governor clearly wants it to be a fast-track process, and I think the same kind of time constraints we had as a committee will be placed on the Department of Transportation," said Mayor Byron W. Brown, who voted for a downtown location.

Eleven members of the selection committee voted for downtown, four voted against downtown and one abstained. Three of those voting against downtown said the station should be put at the Central Terminal.

"The work will continue now with the Department of Transportation to decide the optimal location downtown, given the several locations that are still part of the downtown mix," the mayor said.

The committee's recommendation – which met Cuomo's six-month timetable – was guided by the findings of WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering consultant hired by the state.

Panel OKs downtown train station in 11-4 vote

The consultant evaluated six criteria.

The consultant found downtown to be a better choice than the Central Terminal by an identical score of 3 to 1 in five of the criteria: location in relation to population, employment, entertainment and activity centers; operational efficiency; intermodal connectivity; construction costs; and site readiness.

The two locations tied when it came to evaluating environmental factors.

The state has set aside $25 million for a new station. Additional government money will be needed to pay for the rest. A new Amtrak station would replace the current station, considered too small and dingy for a city the size of Buffalo.

Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo businessman and committee member who heads Empire State Development, the state's development arm, voted for downtown.

"This is really a transportation decision first and foremost, and from that standpoint downtown is a clear winner," Zemsky said.


'Generational opportunity lost'

Zemsky, who has held leadership positions helping revive the Darwin Martin House, the Richardson Olmsted Complex, the Jesse Nash House and other historic sites, expressed confidence that the Central Terminal will be restored in the future, but with a different mission.

"You can be in favor of a downtown train station, and be very much in favor of restoring the Central Terminal and investing in the East Side," he said.

The Central Terminal faced several hurdles.

The Amtrak representative on the committee voted in favor of a downtown site.

The freight railroad CSX, which owns most of the track, didn't want passenger rail at the Central Terminal. It warned Amtrak trains would disrupt one of its busiest rail yards in the state.

And intercity bus companies represented on the committee said they also preferred being downtown, warning business would suffer at the Central Terminal. Concerns were also expressed about low clearance bridges there.

The cost factor may have been the biggest hurdle for the Central Terminal to overcome. The probable cost to ready it for a train station was pegged from $68 million to $149 million, depending on the type of services, compared to $33 million to $86 million for downtown.

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

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, expressed disappointment over the decision.

"This is a generational opportunity lost," Higgins said. "Obviously, the Central Terminal was not going to win out in an apples-to-apples cost comparison. It's the vision you have for the property, and what you do with the opportunity."

He also said it made little sense to him to choose a station that won't be able to go to Cleveland or Chicago. The Amtrak representative said during the meeting that Amtrak was opposed to downtown trains going in reverse for over a mile before being able to head west.

"You're doing a brand-new station that will have a life of many decades, and 65 percent of America is inaccessible from the new station you're about to build," Higgins said.

State Sen. Tim Kennedy, who supported the Central Terminal, said he thought there was still a silver lining from the process.

"There has been more attention paid to the Central Terminal than probably in the last 50 years," Kennedy said. "I think this is going to be at the end of the day a win-win because of the renewed focus on transforming the Central Terminal into a historic building we can all be proud of once again."

The mayor said everyone on the committee shared the view that something now needed to happen with the Central Terminal. Higgins said he will continue to try to bring federal and state money to the Central Terminal.

"I think we will work as a community to make sure that is accomplished," Brown said.


'Unanswered questions'

Higgins, who called the committee's integrity into question, nonetheless said he would use his position on the House Ways and Means Committee to help secure funds for the downtown station.

"I will certainly fight for that like I fight for anything for the region," Higgins said. "Despite some regret, there is an obligation to now build the best possible train station we can for Buffalo."

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who had both station sites in her district, said she voted for the downtown station after first favoring the Central Terminal. She said the importance of "connectivity" between trains, buses and Metro Rail was the deciding factor.

Inside the Central Terminal, an art deco marvel in decay

County Executive Mark Poloncarz was one of the "no" votes. He said he wasn't convinced a new station is needed, and felt there were too many unanswered questions.

Douglas Funke, president of Citizens for Regional Transit, which had leaned strongly in favor of the Central Terminal in the past, abstained.


Police presence

The meeting at Empire State Development was closed to the public and the media, though it was streamed live on the city's website.

Brown said the meeting was held there, as it was for the two previous sit-down meetings, to take advantage of the room's teleconferencing capability. The space has limited room for viewers.

About 20 supporters of the Central Terminal expected to attend the proceedings, but were not allowed upstairs to the fifth-floor offices.

Outside the building, a block-long police barricade on Perry Street, from Illinois to Mississippi streets, was set up, with Buffalo police officers on duty and about 10 officers inside the building.

The police presence only seemed to heighten people's anger at being denied entrance.

"Whenever people are doing something shady, they do it under the cover of darkness," Eddy Dobosiewicz, who operates Forgotten Buffalo tours on the East Side, said to the crowd.

"Which side are you on, Mayor Brown, which side are you on?" East Side activist Samuel Herbert said.

Mike DeGeorge, the mayor's spokesman, said the city wanted to be prepared if it needed to provide an area for protesters away from the entrance, and to ensure Mississippi Street remained open for traffic and for people working there and doing business. There were no arrests.

Higgins was angry the public was kept out.

"It's public money, it was held in government office space, it's a public process, and 87.9 percent of over 1,200 responses to the site selection committee website expressed a preference for the Central Terminal," he said.

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