A new facility for intercity trains and buses is emerging from the drawing board of the committee determining how best to replace Amtrak’s Exchange Street Station.
But the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is warning that any move of Greyhound, Trailways and other lines now operating from its downtown terminal will cost the transit agency – and its riders – money.
And the NFTA insists it will resist any effort to move core Metro Bus service from its current hub at 181 Ellicott St., even as some advocates foresee a major reorganization of Buffalo’s transportation infrastructure that could result in development opportunities.
While the authority will consider proposals to relocate intercity bus service, the agency would lose about $800,000 annually in revenues from its downtown Metropolitan Transportation Center, according to NFTA Chairwoman Sister Denise A. Roche and her staff.
“It would be financially difficult to see that go in any abrupt way,” Roche said.
And less revenues from bus leases and concessions could ultimately affect Metro riders, she warned.
“So we need planning around that change,” Roche said. "If it’s the community’s desire to move intercity buses ... I ask that it be done carefully so as not to have such an abrupt change for the NFTA.”
The concept gaining favor by the committee that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appointed embraces a transportation center for trains, buses, taxis, ride-hailing, bicycles and even pedestrians. While the NFTA says it will gladly serve any new station either near the existing Exchange Street facility or at the Central Terminal, the other option under consideration, it cannot alter the routes and ridership dependent on its current hub.
“We are not interested in moving our core service,” NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel said of the Metropolitan Transportation Center near Erie Community College's City Campus. “We operate a robust service at the MTC. At peak we’ll have 21 to 23 buses in the location.”
She also emphasized that moving intercity buses to another location must be carefully considered.
“It’s imperative that it not be at the expense of our transit service,” she said. “It needs to be studied.”
Thomas George, a planning committee member and director of public transit for the NFTA, said no alternative that he has seen can match the current bus station footprint and ability to stage buses and serve passengers.
“You need a real estate footprint to operate here,” he said.
Moving Metro operations was never included in the study’s original scope, he added.
He also said Metro is adding service to the current transportation center because it best allows bus layovers and serves riders.
But the planning group Mayor Byron W. Brown heads is studying various options. It preliminarily foresees something like the intermodal facility on the outskirts of Syracuse that serves Amtrak as well as intercity and local buses. It is also asked to provide for taxis, ride-hailing, private vehicles and even bicycles and pedestrians.
The committee’s “guiding principles” charge it to be “as intermodal as possible” by accommodating all forms of transportation and providing “suitable connectivity to regional activity centers and transportation assets, including Metro Rail and the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.”
Most new station models eliminate the former Buffalo Memorial Auditorium location at Canalside as a possible site because of its inability to accommodate intercity buses, said Sam Hoyt, regional president of the Empire State Development Corp. and the governor’s representative on the local panel. But intermodal – train, bus and other means of transportation – remains the goal for nearby sites.
“It’s the global trend,” Hoyt said. “Trains, buses, cars, bikes and more converge on one location. Intermodal is absolutely the goal of the committee.”
A new rail station also could have far-reaching effects. If an intermodal facility at either Central Terminal or in the vicinity of the Exchange Street Station becomes a reality, Hoyt acknowledges new questions naturally follow.
It could mean moving intercity bus service out of the current NFTA terminal. Others suggest relocating the authority from its longtime headquarters at 181 Ellicott St. And Hoyt said anything is possible.
“With progress comes opportunity,” he said of the Ellicott Street site. “We all agree that creating this new train station is significant progress. If that means there’s a secondary benefit of prime real estate opening for development, that’s a bonus.”
"Moving this city forward” should be the overall goal of the rail station study – no matter how far-reaching, he added.
“The NFTA has a board,” he said. “Ultimately it will make a decision in the best interest of the NFTA and the City of Buffalo.”
New use for bus station?
Developers are watching. Rocco Termini, who has spearheaded several downtown developments, hopes new transportation uses lie ahead for Central Terminal. An intermodal facility there could feature NFTA offices in its renovated tower along with a rail/bus station, he said. He also thinks the state’s offer of $25 million for a new station could be leveraged into $40 million with state loans, historic tax credits and brownfield redevelopment credits.
The current NFTA complex on Ellicott Street could then host much of ECC’s burgeoning hospitality and health care needs, he proposes, while Central Terminal could serve as an East Side catalyst. The process could be controlled by Cuomo and Howard A. Zemsky, the state economic development commissioner who oversaw Larkinville’s redevelopment while in the private sector, he believes.
“If you went to Larkinville 15 years ago and suggested to someone all this development would occur, they’d say you were nuts,” Termini said. “But the state controls the process [at Central Terminal]. The governor could call Howard and say ‘I want the NFTA here.’
“But you’ve got to have the vision,” he added.
The authority’s insistence on retaining the main bus terminal for local service could dampen some of those visions. But if the community devises a plan to move authority offices from the seven-story tower adjoining the MTC, the NFTA will listen, Minkel said.
“We’re not talking about our administrative offices,” she said. “We don’t care where we operate.”
$1.6 million invested
Still, the NFTA has pumped almost $1.6 million into the downtown bus terminal over the past few years for new restrooms, new seating, a transit police station, a new Tim Hortons stand, a state-of-the-art information center and renovation of the former snack bar area, Minkel pointed out.
In addition, the authority just signed 10-year agreements with Greyhound, Coach USA and Megabus, Minkel said, while the lapsed lease for Trailways is under negotiation. Some suggest the leases could be renegotiated.
While a new facility for Amtrak will connect to Metro Rail in the Exchange Street vicinity, she thinks the current bus station already provides easy access to Metro Bus and Rail routes.
“I think it works well,” Minkel said, pointing to plans to provide even easier pedestrian routes to Metro Rail along Division Street.
Every concept the local committee is now considering incorporates the intermodal model, said Robert G. Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and a committee member. Now the panel must arrive at a location consensus.
“This is a group that has a vision for the future of rail and intermodal service,” he said. “The question is how far we make the step in that direction. We’re now in the process of informing that decision as best we can.”