Scratch that plan for an overhead pedestrian walkway linking KeyBank Center to a restored Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal – at least for now.
The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority says it cannot afford the planned pedestrian bridge over South Park Avenue as part of its $43 million project to transform the DL&W into a major attraction and transit hub. Although the authority continues to seek new funding sources, its idea to provide direct access to KeyBank Center for thousands of Buffalo Sabres fans arriving at a new Metro Rail station inside the DL&W at the foot of Main Street is now on hold.
“We don’t have the money to build it right now,” said Darren E. Kempner, the NFTA’s manager of grants and government affairs. “We will work any way we can to try and make it happen, but we’re going to have to just take one thing at a time.”
Kempner acknowledged the NFTA’s disappointment in nixing the pedestrian walkway over South Park Avenue, which would have run from the terminal’s Skyway end. It encountered major construction challenges that significantly jacked up the project’s price tag and forced it to languish in a state of “flux” since last summer. He explained that engineers found a maze of underground utility lines that required relocating in order to build the proposed $3 million tower for stairs and walkway support.
As a result, plans now call for only one stair tower from the DL&W’s upper floor to South Park Avenue at Illinois Street. Kempner said the NFTA is still seeking federal grants to complete latter phases of the project, and did not rule out a future effort to connect the two buildings via pedestrian walkway without a stair tower for support.
The rest of the project remains on schedule.
“We are still looking at a station inside the DL&W but it involves a lot of work,” he said. “This is a substantial construction project.”
The setback occurs at the NFTA’s deadline earlier this week for responses to its request for proposals from developers to tackle its vision of a Metro Rail station on the terminal’s lower floor, with escalator and elevator access to a restored second floor featuring retail and attractions. But authority spokeswoman Helen Tederous would not reveal even if it had received any proposals from potential developers.
“We can only say there is interest,” she said.
Kristin O’Neill, assistant executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said the authority faces no requirement to disclose whether it garnered any interest in the project from developers.
“I’m not sure what harm there would be, but they are not obligated” to disclose it, she said.
But one developer who has expressed strong DL&W interest over the years concluded the project cannot succeed without major subsidies.
“I’ll bet nobody submitted a bid,” said Rocco R. Termini. “It’s just impossible to do without some big government subsidy.”
Termini, who has spearheaded major redevelopment projects like the Hotel @ The Lafayette and others, said he still likes the century-old terminal’s potential but cannot identify enough foot traffic to sustain retail, especially in the winter. He pointed to the recent failure of shops in the adjacent Harborcenter, adding that eliminating the walkway means even fewer people passing through the terminal.
“It meant activity there and makes it only more difficult for the deal to work,” he said of losing the walkway. “The costs are just horrific.”
At this point, state and federal funding sources have committed only $28 million to the $43 million project, though the NFTA remains optimistic about obtaining the rest. Nevertheless, Washington has rejected its last two applications for grants to complete the project.
Rep. Brian Higgins, who has championed the DL&W project and sponsored the previous grant applications, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Pegula Sports and Entertainment, parent company of the Sabres, which had supported the walkway concept since its inception, declined comment.
Still, the NFTA proceeds with the project’s initial phases, which involves relocating tracks and overhead catenary in the DL&W yard that serves as Metro Rail headquarters. Kempner said 90 percent of the entire project is now designed, while the station aspect remains on track for completion in 2021. Construction on the tracks is expected to begin this summer.
Crews are also expected to begin work this summer on a lower-level passenger platform, along with access passages for planned stairs and escalators to the second floor.
Kempner said work also is slated for the deteriorating sea wall separating the terminal complex from the Buffalo River. Significant deterioration of wooden piers in the river presents a threat to the DL&W, he said, adding the NFTA is now looking to the City of Buffalo, state Department of Transportation and Army Corps of Engineers to assist.
He said plans now call for building a replacement wall along the river, noting that new supports for the sidewalk and bike path along the terminal must eventually be addressed.