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The Missing Link

This illustration of a concept for a new intercity rail station for downtown Buffalo was created by the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture. It would be located underneath the I-190, beside HSBC Tower.

Why downtown Buffalo needs a new rail station

A high-speed rail plan for Western New York may flop unless Buffalo manages to do something about its lack of a decent train station downtown.

Ten years ago, everyone thought the wait was over. There was a game-changing plan to re-establish downtown Buffalo as the transit center of Western New York. A part of the empty Aud and the area around it would have been transformed into a regional transportation hub, bringing together passenger rail, light rail, and buses. Local politicians even secured money and drew up detailed plans for the building’s repurposing. The Buffalo News quoted then-mayor Anthony Masiello as saying: “This sends a very strong signal we’re no longer talking about concepts…We’re going to start delivering on what we’re talking about for the Buffalo Inner Harbor.”

It never materialized, the Aud was demolished, and the entire idea of such a downtown project vanished with the building. Buffalo was left with a hole in the ground and its meager Amtrak station hidden under the I-190.

Now, Buffalo faces what some suggest may be a new key to energizing the region: high-speed rail.

Groups involved in the planning, including CSX and the New York State Department of Transportation, have discussed faster trains, higher trip frequency, and more reliable service. All this would be within the Empire State Corridor, a two-track line that stretches from Niagara Falls to New York City, with emphasis on the stretch between Albany and the Falls.

Planning is still in early stages, says Hal Morse, executive director of the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council. A corridor-wide environmental impact statement on the effects and feasibility of high-speed rail, he says, is expected in the summer of 2012. Localized studies will follow, and after those, construction.

Morse’s organization is Western New York’s metropolitan planning organization, or MPO. There is an MPO for every urban area in the state with at least 50,000 residents, each designated by the governor. The GBNRTC is responsible for developing solutions to regional transportation issues, and for using federal funds to create and implement projects. It is made of seven members, including representatives of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and the City of Buffalo. Consequently, the GBNRTC is deeply involved in planning for high-speed rail in Western New York.

The rail improvement process cannot be rushed, and the issue of train speed seems to be slowing progress. According to a June story in the Albany Times-Union, CSX is pushing for a 90 miles per hour speed limit on a track line west of Schenectady that it owns. The NYSDOT, meanwhile, would like initial passenger train speeds of around 110 miles per hour, though it may compromise in the short term.

In the beginning, higher-speed trains would still share tracks with regular passenger and freight trains. The finished product, Morse says, would be a third track to be used exclusively for high-speed trains. A small part of that third track has already been built outside Rochester.

“When you’re bringing the external transportation to the region—for example the high-speed rail project—one of the things that we do is try and coordinate how will we achieve the vision for this region,” Morse says. “We’re also working closely with the Canadians. We’ve been building this mega-region concept that incorporates the greater Toronto area and Upstate New York. And when you combine that population base it’s really significant and substantially growing.”

This emerging mega-region is known as the Greater Golden Horseshoe, and, according to most proponents of high-speed rail, its growth and success will depend significantly on improved transportation among its cities.

One such proponent is the High Speed Rail NY Coalition. In 2009 it published a “Statement of Regional Impact” to promote high-speed rail. The statement is signed by a variety of mayors—including Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown—as well as heads of business associations and economic development organizations, such as the Metropolitan Development Association of Central New York.

When listing the potential benefits of a high-speed rail line in the Buffalo-Niagara region, the statement emphasizes economics and, more specifically, binational transportation and trade within the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Amtrak's principal regional train station in Depew offers an uninviting introduction to Western New York.

“Ontario and New York are…significant economic partners as 54 percent of the state’s total value of trade with Canada is with Ontario,” the statement says. “With 16 percent of all Canada-US trade crossing at the Niagara Frontier, the region is clearly a key economic gateway between the nations.”

Regional infrastructure will also be key to economic development in Western New York, and rail, though not high-speed, is part of the GBNRTC’s plan for improving local transportation, according to the High Speed Rail NY Coalition. In the same regional impact statement, it mentions developing plans for a commuter rail line between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Such a commuter line would, the statement says, “be highly complementary to high speed intercity rail in the upstate corridor.”

In Washington, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter has been a tireless advocate for high-speed rail. She has stated many times that the Empire Corridor rail line will be the state’s next Erie Canal, most recently in a speech on the House floor this July.

“A high speed rail line in Western New York is currently planned, it would reduce the travel time significantly and expand the Western New York labor market to 955,562 workers, would make it the 26th largest metro area in the world,” she said. “In my home state of New York, the United States Conference of Mayors estimates at least 21,000 new jobs and $1.1 billion in new wages with the construction of high speed rail along the Empire Corridor from Buffalo to Albany.”

The numbers Slaughter cited in her speech, from the United States Conference of Mayors, are part of a report that predicts the benefits of high-speed rail in 2035. It included Albany in a group of four cities in its analysis. In the report’s rosiest scenario, which Slaughter used, trains will travel at 220 miles per hour—far faster than the 90-110 miles per hour New York State may see in coming years. The report predicts that after short-term improvements, “impacts will be relatively small,” with about 3,000 jobs created in Albany and a few thousand more visitors. Similar numbers would likely pop up in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse.

The High Speed Rail NY Coalition even suggests that a high-speed rail system will, if properly executed, reduce the severity of sprawl across the state by encouraging people to live closer to areas with rail service.

While optimistic predictions are easy to look at, there is still the project’s price to consider. The NYSDOT, in a 2009 report, estimated that between 2009 and 2013, combined passenger and freight rail costs would be about $4.8 billion. This includes both maintenance and expansion, with a majority going to intercity passenger rail lines. It also suggests that the longer-term high-speed rail project in New York State will cost much more. The NYSDOT estimates that by 2028, at least $10.7 billion will have been spent on rail in the state.

Earlier this year, the federal government awarded New York State over $350 million in high-speed rail funding that Florida Governor Rick Scott turned down. Another $151 million came last year from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), and New York State has also invested millions of dollars to date. Millions, however, will not cut it when billions are needed, especially as Amtrak ridership flags.

Those ridership problems are the focus of a primary argument against high-speed rail in New York State: Why put more money into rail lines that nobody is using? Amtrak survives only because of federal subsidies.

Morse’s answer rises from his belief that someday ridership will increase. The GBNRTC, he says, aims to anticipate travelers’ needs and to build to meet them. He contends that future demand will merit high-speed rail. An Amtrak spokesperson says the company is “in full support mode,” ready to stand behind any rail plan the state proposes.

Dr. Kate Foster, director of the University at Buffalo’s Regional Institute, acknowledges the possibility of a successful high-speed rail system, but emphasizes the need to carefully consider all the tradeoffs such a project demands.

High-speed rail is not a slam-dunk for the region, she says, especially since one of its biggest competitors, the car, still offers attractive convenience and the option to travel door-to-door, not station-to-station. Higher incomes and lower urban density means most families have a car. The steps involved in rail travel, she says, would make it too burdensome for those who could just as easily drive.

Reuse of the Central Terminal for high-speed rail presents several difficulties. For one, it's not very central to the city.

“We’ve not become a nation of rail-riders, we’ve become a nation of car owners,” she says. “Your competition is in part the convenience and the facility with which people climb into their car to make a trip.”

The higher train speeds would likely also mean fewer stops, since trains going faster need more space to accelerate and slow. A low number of stops along the high-speed rail corridor, Foster says, will likely mute the potential increased ridership and economic benefits assumed to come from a better rail connection. Fewer stops means fewer chances for potential riders to access a train, and fewer chances for riders to get off and interact with the local economies looking to get something out of high-speed rail.

“If you’re not going to stop very often, then the only densities you can deal with are the one at Buffalo and the one at Albany,” she says. “Along the Thruway there’s not much density. There might be a little if you pulled into Rochester, and there’s going to be a little again if you pull into Syracuse, but it’s not New York City. If you’re talking about passenger rail, you need passengers.”

“Who knows how much service would actually increase with high-speed rail,” says Dr. Daniel Hess, associate professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at UB. Hess, like Foster, recognizes high-speed rail’s potential. “It would have to be really terrific service, really priced right, in order to greatly increase the number of people coming to Buffalo by rail.”

He says that if it does materialize, Buffalo can handle the increase in visitors that Morse and the NYSDOT predict. “Can NFTA handle the number of people that would be coming on rail? Right now I think absolutely,” he says.

Hess teaches classes on transportation planning, and has experience in researching travel behavior, or people’s choices about where, when, and how they travel. He, too, warns that any decisions on high-speed rail, at both the city and state level, must be approached cautiously. Often, Hess says, American travelers in Western Europe will experience the region’s efficient high-speed trains and demand that the same system be built back home.

“Where rail works best is at its arrival and departure points you have a lot of activity happening. You travel from the center of London to the center of Paris on high-speed rail, and when you arrive in the center of Paris there’s an enormous density of activity,” Hess says. The closest example of such a system stateside is the Boston-New York City-Washington, DC corridor, which is different in more than one way from the Empire Corridor. “The problem with cities like Buffalo is the central city, the central core, has really lost its bang as the nerve center of the region,” Hess says. “If you were to arrive in downtown Buffalo on the rail, there isn’t necessarily so much there for you.”

Thanks to recent development, downtown Buffalo has a better chance of seeing actual growth. The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation is currently trying to rebuild the Inner Harbor, which, Hess says, will be instrumental in fostering a useful downtown rail connection.

“It’s sort of re-envisioning the Inner Harbor and which land uses are where, what the activity centers are, and what are the draws. Is that a good time to think of possibly adding an intermodal transportation center somewhere in the district? Yes, absolutely, I think that’s a great idea,” Hess says.

Erich Weyant, assistant director of communications at the ECDHC, agrees.

“Anything that drives people and traffic into Buffalo is good for the area as a whole. It certainly would be good for the waterfront just as an ancillary to that,” he says.

For Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo and an ardent promoter of neighborhood development and historic preservation, a downtown train station would be the first logical step in revitalizing the area, and should be prioritized. “Whether this downtown station is high-speed rail or not, I think it should be built, if only to serve Niagara Falls, Hamilton, and Toronto,” he says.

Sam Hoyt, former New York State assemblyman and currently vice president for regional development for the Empire State Development Corporation, ECHDC’s parent organization, agrees that the city needs a new station, having spent considerable time pushing for high-speed rail during his career in the New York State Assembly.

“When [high-speed rail] happens—and I’m confident that it will happen—it would be appropriate for the City of Buffalo to have a train station that was more suitable than the one that’s there,” he says.

During Buffalo’s heyday, when the Erie Canal was still used and ended at the Inner Harbor, railroads fought to build their stations as closely as possible to downtown. Those stations, Tielman says, hooked other businesses into setting up by the canal and the city flourished.

"Every train terminal downtown was designed to be welcoming, grand, and to tell the customer that 'You're on a good rail line, you've made a wise purchase,' and that helped the city around it." -Tim Tielman

“It’s about time we spent some money on trains and transit and socially redeeming things, rather than focus on how can we make the world safe for Benderson Development and Bass Pro,” he says. “I think if we create this train station and redo the Metro Rail station, it goes beyond symbolism. It’s a signaling device: Buffalo is a connected place. Right now it’s like every other city, with a tangle of highways.”

Weyant and Morse both have said there are no concrete plans for a new train station downtown. Morse admits that could be possible in the future, though he won’t give details, such as whether the rehabilitation of the Donovan Federal Office Building will factor into any development.

Hess also believes downtown Buffalo will need a new station if the city wants to attract new visitors with a high-speed rail line.

“The station in downtown Buffalo would be attractive too, but that would probably be a new construction, new build. We’d need a new location for it, which would be expensive,” he says. “I think in these times, we have to think carefully about any sort of public money that we spend, and we should be pretty realistic about the payoff we’re going to get back.”

Morse says that any new station built in Buffalo would come only after the second-tier, local EIS. With the corridor-wide EIS scheduled to be complete in the summer of 2012, this suggests that Buffalo will suffer many more years without a new downtown train station.

Meanwhile, Niagara Falls is working on a $44 million International Railway Station and Intermodal Transportation Center. The station should be open to passengers by 2013, according to an article in the Niagara Falls Review. Officials on both sides of the border imagine the improved connection between Canada and the US to be a first step in building the Toronto-Western New York mega-region.

The Niagara Falls project isn’t alone. The Rensselaer train station, currently one of the most congested in the state, is getting station improvements and more tracks. Rochester—thanks to lobbying from Slaughter—and Schenectady will also soon have new stations, and even the Buffalo-Depew station is upgrading.

In its 2009 rail report, the NYSDOT predicted that about $22.4 million would be spent on a new downtown Buffalo station between 2009 and 2013. This, however, seems unlikely, given the lack of any concrete plan for one.

Why planning for a downtown station stopped after the Aud was demolished is unclear. Hoyt blames the poor follow-through on both low public interest and minimal government support. The Aud was demolished, he notes, during the Bush administration, which, unlike the Obama administration, opposed high-speed rail development.

“My efforts years ago were put on hold because there wasn’t a lot of buy-in from the community,” he says. “In a sense, the stars are aligning and there’s much more interest and energy behind the thought.”

When the Aud was still being considered as part of a downtown transportation center, the federal government had agreed to give $9.1 million to help fund it. The center, according to a 2001 Buffalo News article, was supposed to cost between $18 million and $20 million.

After the Aud was demolished, some of the money in hand for the proposed train station was moved to cover the cost of a parking ramp on Marine Drive proposed by ECHDC as part of the Canalside development. Tielman says this money may still be moving around, though its current state is unclear. Tielman’s organization has proposed a train station be built on the old Aud site, in part as a response in its fight against development centered on big-box retail, as exemplified by Bass Pro. In the latest copy of ECHDC’s plans for the Inner Harbor, Tielman says, there is a section focusing on the possibility of a rail station. In press releases and other documents, however, ECHDC has not mentioned idea.

Architect David DeBoy, a member of the Buffalo Design Collaborative, helped create the original plans for a station at the Aud site. He says those plans included some proposals that would have re-used the building and some that didn’t. So it would have been possible to build a station without the Aud, as DeBoy’s plans covered that possibility.

Tielman criticizes ECHDC for what he describes as its negative attitude toward public transportation. Recalling the fight over Bass Pro, he mentioned parts of the plan that would have had parking ramps with elevated bridges connecting them to the store, symbolically keeping out anyone without a car, and elevating those who have one from the streetscape below. Many retailers and the development agencies who court them, he says, want only customers who can afford cars, and often oppose expanding public transportation lines.

“Empire State Development, they don’t necessarily want [a train station],” Tielman says. “They’re thinking, ‘Our people aren’t going to use the trains, we don’t want those types of people.’ They don’t view getting more Metro Rail passengers down there or bus passengers as a plus.”

Buffalo’s Exchange Street station, he says, does little to attract people to the city, hurting both downtown’s image and its chances for growth.

“You couldn’t have a better symbol of the over-dominance of the automobile and of the neglect of public transit than that little train station in the shadow of the Thruway overpasses,” he says. “No self-respecting city or citizen should tolerate that.”

With enough public support, Tielman says, the chances of using the old Central Terminal as an actual train station are good. The grandeur of a station, he emphasizes, has cash value. A beautiful station will impress and attract riders, he says, and that should be an important part of any downtown station.

“This is our marketing,” he says. “Every train terminal downtown was designed to be welcoming, grand, and to tell the customer that ‘You’re on a good rail line, you’ve made a wise purchase,’ and that helped the city around it.’ The train station has the potential to be the beginning of focusing people [downtown], and then it will become logical to make the next steps. You redo the Metro Rail station, you do an intercity rail, and other things start falling into place.”

Tielman reasons that since federal and state money helped demolish a number of historic downtown stations in the 1960s, the same money should also fund a worthy replacement station.

“I think it’s up to the city, the state, federal governments to give Buffalo the downtown train station it deserves,” he says.

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