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Next story: The Green Zone

Catching That Train

Obama has decided to spend billions on high-speed rail. Will New York State reap some of that investment? How about Buffalo's Old Central Terminal?

The former New York Central Terminal on Buffalo's East Side. (photo by Rose Mattrey)

Looking up Paderewski Drive, it is impossible not to be taken in by the massive tower that rises above the surrounding blocks of two-story homes. The Art Deco building that has loomed over the East Side since 1929 is the most recognizable structure outside of downtown, and can be seen for miles. Apart from the occasional party or art show, its cavernous, once bustling halls now lay dormant. The last train to have pass through the station departed on October 28, 1979.

For the past six years the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation has been fighting to bring life back to the building, and the building’s champions hope that a new plan for a high-speed rail line to run through Buffalo may be the breath that will help to resuscitate the sleeping giant.

The Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan includes a large appropriation for the development of public transportation infrastructure, with a focus on rail: $9 billion in the stimulus package for high-speed rail across the country. To that, add another $5 billion in the regular federal budget to be appropriated at $1 billion a year over the next five years.

“All of a sudden there is $14 billion available for high-speed rail initiatives across the country,” says New York State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who has been advocating high-speed rail for the past 20 years. “And because of the advocacy of Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Louise Slaughter at the federal level and David Paterson here in New York State, we see for the first time this kind of united front for high-speed rail.

“In the 20 years that I’ve been promoting and pushing for high-speed rail, we’ve never come closer to it becoming a reality than we are right now.”

US Representative Louise Slaughter has also been pushing for high-speed rail for many years, and she thinks the New York project has a great chance to see some of that $14 billion in federal funding.

“We are one of the shovel-ready corridors, which gives us a great leg up,” Slaughter says. “The State of New York has already done a rail plan, which again puts us ahead. They’ve negotiated with CSX for about a billion and a half dollars worth of projects, and we can start on them right away.”

The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, the government-owned rail company better known as Amtrak, would own and operate the high-speed trains. Amtrak has been a controversial entity since its creation in 1971 under the Nixon administration, when a plan to let the company fail over the following two years was uncovered and thwarted. Amtrak continues to run at a deficit today. The company’s few champions argue that train travel is a part of our national heritage that shouldn’t be allowed to die, while its critics complain of the public investment required to keep the corporation alive. Amtrak supporters counter that privately owned airlines, particularly in recent years, have required billions of federal dollars to keep them afloat, and that the government-funded highway system also bears an enormous annual price tag.

While the money from the stimulus package isn’t likely to foot the entire bill for New York rail project, it should take care of a substantial portion of the cost.

“On the New York side of the equation, the cost is estimated to be between $3 billion and $5 billion,” says Hoyt. “Our goal is to get as much as possible from the federal stimulus money, but we’d be extremely lucky to get it all. I’m not optimistic about that. But two or three billion, sure.”

photo by Adam Vester

Meanwhile, on Buffalo’s East Side

For advocates of Buffalo’s Central Terminal building, those billions of dollars mean more than just new rails and trains, and new connections that might one day link Buffalo with Toronto, New York City, Albany, and Montreal.

“I think that with everything that is being talked about with high-speed rail, the time is ripe for the Central Terminal to be included in that equation,” says Mike Miller, the president of the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation.

Miller and the group’s vice president, Mark Lewandowski, believe that the Central Terminal would be the optimal location for the proposed high-speed rail line to locate its Buffalo station.

“While the New York Central’s plan for a Buffalo station was on paper, there was a 43-year debate—it was like the Peace Bridge—as to whether it was better to put the Central Terminal downtown or along the main line tracks where it is today,” says Lewandowski, who was born and raised on Curtiss Street, which runs adjacent to the terminal. Lewandowski has been a trustee for the Western New York Railway Historical Society for the past 13 years.

“We didn’t have the advantage of having a large central station like New York City, built right with the design of the central hub of the city,” says Miller. “The terminal was built where it was built because of the infrastructure required to get the trains in and out.”

While it would be convenient for passengers to get off of the high-speed rail and walk out of the station and into downtown, Miller and Lewandowski argue that Amtrak’s Exchange Street station simply doesn’t have the footprint to handle the sort of traffic that a central hub would necessitate. “It goes back to the same 100-year-old argument,” Lewandowski says. “Once you get the trains deep into the city, you’ve still got to move them around.”

The Exchange Street station presents another problem. Not only is it difficult to get trains in and out of downtown quickly, but that location lacks the north, south, and east right-of-way avenues that exist at the Central Terminal location.

“In 1983, when the light rail went in, there is what they call transportation radials in the plan with a line to go to the Southtowns through Hamburg; a line to go east—the same line that today, believe it or not, goes right by the Walden Galleria and the airport and runs into downtown Buffalo; and a line that runs up toward North Tonawanda,” said Lewandowski. “That’s where there is a light rail possibility. All they gotta do is lay down the tracks to run right by the Central Terminal.”

While the stimulus package contains only $1 billion for light rail development nationwide—none of which Buffalo is likely to see—placing the Buffalo stop for high-speed rail at the Central Terminal would make future development of light rail in Buffalo and connections out to the suburbs convenient.

Who’ll ride that train

Some skeptics have argued that high-speed rail would do nothing to increase ridership, and that not enough people travel by train currently to justify the massive investment. Bruce Becker, President of the Empire State Passenger Association, disagrees.

“Last year ridership on the trains that travel across upstate New York from Albany to Buffalo and Niagara Falls was up 23 percent [from 288,365 to 354,492] over the prior year, and that was with the relatively slow and unreliable service offered today,” Becker says. “With appreciably faster, more frequent and more reliable service, we see a huge untapped market for rail travel, particularly as gas prices go back up, which they inevitably will in the coming years.

“Even with gas prices half what they were last summer, ridership continues to grow across upstate, and we would predicate another huge spike in rail riders if gas returns to higher levels.”

Perhaps one of the most appealing prospects of the proposed high-speed rail line is that it would run on a dedicated track. The old system, under which Amtrak and CSX freight trains share tracks, would become a thing of the past.

“It’s kind of like being on a country road and there’s a dump truck in front of you going 30 miles per hour,” Lewandowski says of the current system. “Even if you have a Lamborghini, you’re still going 30 miles per hour.”

Becker argues that rail is more environmentally friendly than car or plane travel, as well.

“Rail travel is the greenest form of transportation, and increased rail travel would be a boost for the environment,” Becker says.

If travel times can be reduced, Hoyt believes that more people would opt for trains over highway and air travel.

“Intercity trains make a lot of sense at a time when we have airports that are bursting at the seams at LaGuardia and Kennedy and Pearson in Toronto,” Hoyt says.

“We have highways across the state that are reaching capacity. You can’t just build a new airport and you can’t just add a lane every time it reaches capacity. We’re looking to replicate the best practices that exist in Japan and China and across Europe, where they discovered long ago that passenger rail, high-speed rail, was the form of transportation that makes the most sense connecting cities that are short distances apart from one another.”

While no one is advocating intercoastal high-speed rail connections, it has been suggested that high-speed rail might extend north from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. And, with the cooperation of the Canadian government, perhaps it would extend north from Niagara Falls to Toronto, and north from Albany to Montreal. Add a connection to New York City, and one between Toronto and Montreal, and you’ve linked some of the continent’s biggest markets.

photo by Rose Mattrey

Completing the loop

Lewandowski says the Buffalo-Niagara Falls connection doesn’t make much sense to him. “Currently Amtrak runs at about 60 miles per hour from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. So for 20 miles, it takes you 20 minutes to get from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. If you rework all those tracks for all those crossings you are not going to scream along at 100 miles per hour. To even reach that speed would take about five miles, and then you’d already have to start slowing down again. You’d reach the falls in between 12.7 and 13.2 minutes. If you put a high-speed line up to Niagara Falls, you are essentially racing to the red light. In this day and age you have Customs and Homeland Security issues. So that train is gonna sit there no matter what.”

But Hoyt and Slaughter imagine a high-speed loop comprising one of the most populous markets in North America.

“My vision is Toronto to New York City,” Hoyt says. “We need to encourage Ontario and the Canadian government to have a system that matches ours to so that we can connect the two greatest cities in North America and all the cities in between.”

And why wouldn’t it be advantageous to connect the two largest cities in North America? Air travel between the cities is available, but the airports in Toronto and New York are overcrowded and fraught with delays. A line from Buffalo to Toronto could make business between those two cities more convenient to conduct, connecting a jam-packed, commerce-saturated metropolis with a business-starved small city with plenty of cheap real estate and labor. Were travel made simpler and faster between the two cities, Buffalo would make an ideal location for secondary offices for Toronto businesses fighting over outrageously expensive office space.

Slaughter’s vision surpasses Hoyt’s in grandeur. “We’d like to go north to Montreal, and then down to Toronto and back to Buffalo,” she says.

This would create a giant loop, connecting many major and minor cities on both sides of the border and promoting international business and trade. Slaughter has been talking with Canadian officials about the plan.

New life for an old neighborhood

Bringing trains back to the Central Terminal would help to make use of the highly recognizable historic property, and it would help to bring business and all of the things that come along with it—jobs, residents, tax revenue, better service—to one of Buffalo’s most blighted neighborhoods.

“We’ve always said that as the terminal goes, so goes the neighborhood,” Miller says. “In the ’90s when the terminal was wide open and severely vandalized, the rest of the neighborhood kind of declined as well. Now that the building is sealed off and there are new flowers and trees, the grounds are maintained, and we are repaved, you see the neighborhood start to come to life again.”

Portland, Oregon saw revitalization in its low-income neighborhoods as it extended their light rail system.

“Our transit system has made the central city and regional and town centers more accessible and attractive to both employers and residents, which in turn has enhanced property values and redevelopment efforts in these areas,” explains Eric Jacobson, the senior project coordinator for the Portland Development Commission. “Portland has a long and successful history with investing in light rail and streetcar transit systems, and these investments have been central to achieving our transportation, revitalization, economic development, and sustainability initiatives.”

The Portland Development Commission reports that between 2007 and 2009 approximately $1.5 billion in development is expected to occur within walking distance of newly constructed rail stations.

”Our transit system makes our community more livable, which attracts highly educated ‘creative class’ entrepreneurs and professionals who contribute to the employment base,” Jacobson says. “The transit system also reduces the amount people need to spend on cars and gasoline, which enables our residents to spend more on local goods and services, which contributes to the local economy.”

Still, passenger concerns need to be recognized. The Central Terminal is only 3.5 miles by car from HSBC Arena, behind which passengers would exit their trains were the high-speed rail to stop at the Exchange Street location. By rail, taxi, rental car, and bus, all of which would be readily available at a revived Central Terminal, travelers could be downtown in approximately 10 minutes.

“The needs of the future passengers must be considered and should be foremost in the minds of planners when determining where the hub for Buffalo will be located,” Becker says. “Proximity to downtown, efficient highway access, robust local public transit serving the station, safe and secure parking facilities, and many other passenger amenities must be provided for any such hub to be successful in the long run.”

Miller is not convinced that crime would be a problem at the station.

“People only know about the East Side from what they see on TV. And that’s all the bad stuff,” he says. “We’ve heard that for the last six years too, and it hasn’t stopped 125,000 people from coming out to our events. We haven’t had one instance of anybody getting hurt or any cars being vandalized or stolen in those six years.”

Miller envisions a reborn Central Terminal as a mixed-use building with office, retail, and possibly residential space.

The renovation of the Central Terminal is a large undertaking, and it isn’t likely that all of the funding needed to complete the project would be available in the form of public funds.

The building’s 523,000 square feet would provide plenty of space for either headquarters or satellite offices for the many transportation companies and governing bodies that would be crucial to the success of the hub. Taxi services, car rental companies, the NFTA, and Amtrak would all benefit from being housed right on site.

Lewandowski realizes that many things need to fall in place for these plans to become a reality. He remains hopeful.

“Rail will not save that building, but rail will open up that building to development. And what a shot in the arm that would be.

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