As the state’s 2017-18 budget finally fell into place we found that among the financial decisions is a pile of goodies from the state. Governor Cuomo provided the Buffalo Billion II, which is actually one half billion dollars – a lot of money. There is also $385 million more stuffed in the budget for projects in Western New York and statewide that the governor and the Legislature will separately award.
There is no reason to complain about the state sending this money to Western New York. There are lots of needs. But that does not mean that there should not still be a discussion about the value of some of the suggested economic development projects.
The Buffalo Billion II (BBII) includes, for example, five million dollars for an environmental analysis study and preliminary design for the extension of the Metrorail line into Amherst. This is an issue that has been discussed in one form or another for nearly forty years.
Spending money on a study for a project that is not likely to ever to come to fruition seems like a waste of money. The Metrorail extension, if it were it were to be built, would cost well over a billion dollars. The original line was mostly paid for with federal money. With Washington unable to get out of its own way these days, that will not happen again. Transit line money generally comes out of the same sources of funds that supports highways and bridges. If a new federal infrastructure bill ever does come together roads and bridges will be the priority. Since public transportation runs at a deficit, the extension of the rail line in Buffalo would also put a strain on the NFTA’s operating expenses. No one is discussing where the extra operating dollars would come from to pay for the service. The disruption to the neighborhoods through which the extension would be built can’t be quantified in dollars, but that would be significant too.
The second and more prominent portion of the BBII transportation allocation is the $25 million appropriation for a new train station in Buffalo to replace the small facility located on Exchange Street. The station is run down. But the issue about a new train station has become caught up in local development issues that have little to do with a train facility that currently serves less than 200 people a day. The transportation issue, if you will excuse the pun, needs to run on a parallel but separate track with the development issue.
Patrick J. Whalen, director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute in Niagara Falls, published an excellent article about the Buffalo’s train station issue in the December 15, 2016 edition of the Buffalo News. I recommend that you read the entire article, but here are a few important excerpts:
Local politicians are about to begin a study to determine the best place to spend at least $25 million of taxpayer money for a new Buffalo train station. This is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.
$25 million is a lot of money, especially for the benefit of very few people. And we all know that the ultimate cost of a new train station will undoubtedly be a lot more than $25 million by the time it’s finished…
The two Buffalo area stations combined handled an average of 427 passengers a day last year (113 at Exchange Street…and 314 at Depew)… That was a 5.5 percent decrease from 2014. And those numbers are for arrivals and departures…
It would not appear that cost is keeping people from taking the train. A JetBlue round-trip ticket to New York City is about $116 and Amtrak is about $117….
Time is undoubtedly a factor. The New York City train trip from Buffalo is scheduled to take about eight hours. Tough to compete with JetBlue, which takes about an hour and a half. For Chicago, Amtrak is scheduled to be over 10 hours while Southwest is less than two hours.
But the wild card is on-time performance. In the past 12 months, Southwest Airlines into Chicago Midway was on time 84 percent of the time. But Amtrak’s Lake Shore train was on time less than 57 percent of the time. JetBlue’s Buffalo on-time performance was 80 percent while Amtrak’s Maple Leaf was on time just 72.3 percent of the time…
Amtrak is quick to point out that this lousy on-time performance is not its fault. Since it uses tracks owned by others, primarily CSX, Amtrak frequently gets held up by CSX trains…
So it is my opinion that the cost of tickets is not the reason more people do not take Amtrak. Nor is it the stations. The stations are admittedly unattractive, but functionally they are adequate. And while rail is a slower mode of transportation than air, the main cause of lower ridership is the uncertainty about what time you will arrive at your destination…
Which leads me to my suggestion that Buffalo simply doesn’t need a new station. And it won’t need a new station until Amtrak can attract more riders. And Amtrak won’t attract more riders until it can provide a predictable service.
One of the options for a “new” station is to rejuvenate the former Central Terminal, which could then anchor a revival of the surrounding neighborhood. I don’t dispute that. But the idea that eight trains (some in the middle of the night) handling a total of 427 passengers a day in the Central Terminal can have a meaningful impact on the terminal seems like a stretch to me. And even if it could, is it worth $25 million of scarce transportation dollars? If neighborhood revitalization/economic development is the goal, use economic development money for it!
Let’s use the transportation dollars wisely: Spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars and fix up the two stations we have …
The issue of selecting a new site for a train station is currently being reviewed by a group headed by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. Canalside and Larkinville have supporters but for various reasons those two possibilities are fading. The biggest band of supporters, which includes politicians, preservationists, and neighborhood advocates is pushing for the station to be located at the former New York Central Terminal near Broadway on the city’s east side. What an original idea – using a train station for a train station.
The thing is, for the volume of local train traffic that is likely to use any train station in the City of Buffalo, the Central Terminal is way over the top in terms of space and facilities. There are probably dozens of NFTA Metro bus stops that attract far more people each day than the number using the Buffalo train station. The beautiful concourse in the Terminal was built for a time when train travel in the United States was king and airlines were in their infancy. From personal experience in using the train all that is needed is some place to wait for a train and to get on or off. There is so little Amtrak travel that no one lingers, waiting for connecting trains. There are none.
What this means is that if a new Buffalo train station were to be located at the Central Terminal only a very small part of the 65,000 square foot concourse would be needed for a waiting area and a small station office. Something would probably need to be done with the fact that the passengers arriving or departing have quite a hike with baggage to and from the trains. From what I recall (think of the movie “Best Friends” that had a scene filmed at the station ), there may be some stairs to navigate. Perhaps those issues could be worked out, but locating a new and modern train station at the Central Terminal is not without some complications for train service including issues about how passenger trains often play second fiddle to commercial traffic using the same tracks.
It is hard to imagine how a small and lightly used train station at the Terminal can drive redevelopment of the entire facility and grounds. Locating a train station at the Central Terminal has nothing to do with the re-use of tens of thousands of square feet of office space in the tower or the surrounding property. Developers have come and gone for the facility over the past decades. Nothing has come of it. Developer Rocco Termini has suggested some appropriate re-uses for the building, including perhaps the re-location of the NFTA’s administrative offices as well as some Erie County Social Services Department offices. There is plenty of space for parking and bus service for such operations.
So yes, come up a modest and inexpensive plan for a train station suited for the low volume of passengers who will use it. If the decision is to locate the station at the Central Terminal, don’t expect that a little used station will magically bring that facility back to life. Then take what is left of the proposed $25 million spending for the station and re-deploy it to fix some streets or bridges or buy some new buses. Those needs far exceeds the cash available.
Figuring these things out has been like waiting for a train. Sometimes there is nothing going on but waiting. Not a great idea.