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Coming to Exchange Street: Trains, but no buses ... for now

Buffalo could get a new downtown train station in a couple of years – but it could be closed when about half the trains come in and out.

That's because Greyhound, Trailways and Megabus buses are not part of the plan for the new station on Exchange Street — at least, not yet. Without bus passengers, there would not be enough people to make it worth keeping the station open for longer hours.

The hangup on getting intercity buses at the new station comes down to money for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. The transit agency would lose more than $600,000 annually in rent if the intercity buses move from its downtown Metropolitan Transportation Center on Ellicott Street to the new train station.

"We would support intercity buses moving to the train station if the funding shortfall was resolved," said Kimberley A. Minkel, the NFTA's executive director. "Our top priority is to the thousands of our transit riders and the impact this would have on critical services."

Despite talk of making the new train station multimodal, the NFTA signed Greyhound and New York Trailways to 10-year leases last spring to keep the buses at the NFTA facility. Both companies have an opt-out after five years for a fee.

Renderings for the train station show a dozen canopied bays for buses and an additional waiting room would not be built until a second phase of the project.

"It's troubling not to have it multimodal from the beginning," said Elizabeth Giles, an executive board member of Citizens for Regional Transit.

"I'd like to have faith in what the planners say will ultimately happen, but there is no guarantee that we will have the funding we need in the future, or that everything will coalesce the way it's supposed to," Giles said.

A rendering of the proposed station.

The existing Exchange Street station is closed when 21 of Amtrak's 43 trains pull in each week. At night and on weekends, passengers board trains or get off when the station is closed. Amtrak opens the small station from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.

There's no indication those hours would change at a new station without intercity buses. Transit advocates have pushed to keep the current station open around the clock, and officials say that remains a goal.

"At the moment, we don’t have any plans to change any of the hours for the new station," Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said. "However, we continually evaluate train station hours based on ridership levels."

Long-term plans

Sowinski Sullivan, the firm that designed the new station, was required by the state Department of Transportation to show how the station could expand to accommodate bus passengers and additional rail passengers if trains were to head west from downtown.

Also, the firm was recently asked to begin estimating costs for the expansion, said Rich Sullivan, an architect with the firm. It's expected to cost $20 million to build the station, plus $4 million for engineering and $1 million for the initial study.

The DOT expects intercity buses will eventually operate out of a new train station once state funds are found to pay for it, agency spokeswoman Susan S. Surdej said.

"We are fully committed to proceeding with Phase 2 once NFTA works out the financing," she said.

Mayor Byron W. Brown, who established a committee with $1 million from the state to determine where to locate a new train station, said he is confident intercity buses will eventually relocate there.

"Our committee always believed that, given contracts and other issues, that the bus service would have to be phased in and wouldn't be part of the first phase," the mayor said.

Affecting the NFTA

The NFTA has both Metro and intercity buses at its downtown Metropolitan Transportation Center at 181 Ellicott St.

Greyhound, Trailways and Megabus currently pay $661,840 to lease space. Losing the carriers as tenants, after 40 years of intercity service, would leave administrators and government officials facing a challenge over how to make up for the authority's lost revenue.

It would also leave 12 of the station's 21 gates at the downtown station unused.

The NFTA reached agreements on new lease terms with Greyhound and New York Trailways in April 2017 and May 2017, respectively, NFTA spokeswoman Helen Tederous said. Both leases are for 10 years, with the option to exit at any time following the fifth year, subject to a declining early termination fee.

But the NFTA wants to help the new train station succeed, Minkel said.

"The NFTA is fully committed to the Buffalo Train Station project including the Phase 2 plan to make it multimodal," she said in a statement.

Passengers wait at the downtown Metropolitan Transportation Center on Ellicott Street. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

One option would be for the state to ask the NFTA to oversee intercity buses at the new station, which could allow it to continue collecting rent from the carriers.

But that is not something Minkel wants to talk about yet.

"Details related to operations for Phase 2 are still being discussed," she said.

'Right for downtown'

Eugene J. Berardi Jr., president of New York Trailways, expressed his desire to move his buses to the new train station last May, one day after signing a lease. Berardi was a member of the train station committee, which has as one of its guiding principles to be "as intermodal as possible" by accommodating all forms of transportation.

"We're very, very excited about the city's effort to build a new facility," Berardi said. "If that bus station is down there, it will do very, very well. This concept and this vision is right for downtown Buffalo."

Berardi said the new lease contained "out clauses" he expected Trailways to exercise, but he also said he hoped the state would help defray the termination fees.

Greyhound also expressed interest at the time in moving to the new train station.

"We are very supportive of the efforts to centralize traveling options in Buffalo," spokeswoman Allison Morrison said.

Sam Hoyt, who was an early champion of a multimodal station and served on the station location committee, said he is "100 percent confident the state will move quickly to make it a truly multimodal station."

But when that occurs may depend on the NFTA not penalizing the bus carriers, Hoyt said.

"The contracts with the NFTA make it very cost-prohibitive for any of them to just walk away from their current lease," Hoyt said. "The NFTA could waive that feature in the contract, and I think they should for the good of the community, but that would be up their board and leadership team."

'Absolute farce'

The plan for the new station needs to go further by also including city buses, said Tim Tielman, executive director of Campaign for Greater Buffalo.

Last year, Tielman proposed his own plan – rejected by the train station location committee – that called for fronting the station on Washington Street, putting the city buses between Washington and Main streets and putting a ceiling under the Thruway to improve the walk between the station and Metro Rail.

"Calling this station multimodal is an absolute farce without the 20 million local bus riders and the 5 million who ride Metro Rail," Tielman said.

The NFTA has no plans to change its city bus service. Minkel said the NFTA will provide up to four Metro buses at the new station, depending on the demand and other logistical considerations.

Some train stations in other upstate cities include buses.

The William F. Walsh Regional Transportation Center in Syracuse accommodates city and interstate bus service as well as Amtrak, with separate waiting rooms for each group of travelers.

An Amtrak station in Rochester that opened in October 2017 also shows plans, like Buffalo, to eventually accommodate intercity buses. For now, the intercity buses are housed at a temporary facility across the street.

In the meantime, the DOT said it plans to ask Amtrak to extend its hours.

"We will be working with Amtrak to provide improved station hours that will meet the needs and expectations of the public," said Surdej, the DOT spokeswoman.

Brown suggested an attractive station could boost ridership, which in turn could extend Amtrak's hours.

"If some of the features going into the new station encourage people to use it even more, I'm sure Amtrak would take another look at the time offerings in terms of when the station is open," he said.

The mayor said the downtown location "best fits Amtrak's seamless journey philosophy," with buses part of the mix, sooner rather than later.

"I think this was the best option for multimodality, and to really get the traveling public to where they want to be," Brown said.

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