By Elizabeth Giles
On the Fourth of July, the Buffalo News published a story on the “little guy” who conceived of the Erie Canal – an idea that drew plenty of skepticism, even derision. But in the end, the canal was built despite the naysayers and the formidable price tag. And it proved a game changer for Buffalo, New York State and those who had the courage to think big.
I see parallels between the inspiration that brought us the canal and today’s progressive vision for Buffalo’s Central Terminal and its role in a transformed transportation landscape that is already unfolding before us.
This is not some irrational, silver-bullet fantasy for saving the terminal, but a practical and logical response to projections about the future that dominate the headlines: the urgent need to combat climate change, the prediction that driverless cars on demand will soon make private car ownership obsolete, and the need to improve mobility options for our senior, disabled and economically disadvantaged citizens, together with the new arrivals to our region who demand car-free alternatives.
Capitalizing on infrastructure we’ve inherited from our heyday as North America’s second-largest railroad hub, Buffalo is poised to put those assets to work again, gradually expanding our intercity and commuter railways into a state-of-the-art network.
We can take advantage of disused public rail rights of way to connect our downtown to Buffalo Niagara International Airport, Niagara Falls, Tonawanda and the Southtowns. The Central Terminal sits on the intersection of the Belt Line, which loops around the city, and the eastward right of way that connects Canalside to Larkinville, the Walden Galleria and the airport. Running on local hydroelectric power, trains would be a clean, rapid means of moving large numbers of people between bus lines, bikeways and park-and-ride lots to jobs, education, shopping, health care, recreation and entertainment.
The Central Terminal is also positioned to serve intercity trains in all directions, high-speed and otherwise – with ample space to host an intercity bus depot, shared car and shared bike facilities and the aforementioned connections to local commuter rail. It is a natural multimodal transportation hub of the 21st century, able to serve a growing population of climate refugees.
Toronto is actively planning to bring its GO Train service to Niagara Falls. So the oft-floated idea of connecting Southern Ontario to Western New York (in a cooperative binational economic powerhouse that rivals the population of New York City and the GDP of many countries) is now closer to reality.
The question is, as we reflect on the bold experiment of the Erie Canal on its 200th anniversary, who are we now? Are we confident enough to push forward into a dynamic future that makes the most of our underutilized resources? Or are we content to sit on the sidelines instead of advancing ahead of the curve?
Elizabeth Giles is executive board member of Citizens for Regional Transit, a nonprofit organization that promotes a comprehensive multimodal transportation system.