By Mike Hudson
If President Donald Trump gets his way, long distance Amtrak passenger train service to Buffalo and Niagara Falls will be eliminated altogether, leaving just a commuter route linking the two struggling cities.
And with both the House and the Senate controlled by Republicans – who have long attacked the money losing, taxpayer subsidized train service, it looks like he’s going to get his way.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, who recently spent $40 million of your tax dollars to build a new Amtrak station here, will look even dumber than he looks already. He built the white elephant after former President Barak Obama made some vague remark about supporting high speed rail, a proposal immediately shot down by the Congress and that remains what is was – a pie in the sky proposal worthy of Rube Goldberg that will never see the light of day.
Federal budget cutters once again have their eyes on long-distance Amtrak trains — the ones with bud vases in the dining car and picture windows in the lounge. If the Trump administration has its way, Amtrak will lose about half of its $1.4 billion budget and be forced next year to bump off all its long-distance runs, eliminating service to 23 states. Short-haul commuter lines such as the trains to Washington to New York City would that’s left.
The administration said its proposed budget for 2018 would redirect federal subsidies so Amtrak could “focus resources on the parts of the passenger rail system that provide meaningful transportation options within regions.” It said long-distance trains “have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak’s operating losses.”
Those operating losses totaled $227 million in fiscal 2016, Amtrak says.
Eliminating long-distance trains “would allow Amtrak to focus on better managing its state-supported and Northeast corridor train services,” the administration said. The proposed Amtrak cuts would end funding for 15 trains serving 220 cities. Gone would be the Sunset Limited (Los Angeles to New Orleans), the Lake Shore Limited (New York to Chicago) and the Empire Builder (Seattle to Chicago).
The Lake Shore Limited is the main passenger rail line serving Buffalo and, ultimately, Niagara Falls.
In past years, particularly in 2002 and 2016, threatened Amtrak cuts were scrapped by members of Congress who realized their states could lose long-distance trains.
But “it’s more dire this time,” said Paul Dyson, president of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada. “This time, the Republicans control Congress and the White House. But this is a trivial sum of money in the scheme of things.”
Perhaps $227 million is indeed “trivial” in the mind of Dyson. In Niagara Falls though, it amounts to a lot of scratch. So does the $40 million our mayor invested in a terminal for trains that may not exist after this year.
Wagering heavily on 19th Century technology in a 21st Century world would not be considered sound betting practice at any bookie joint across this great nation of ours.
And above and beyond that, Dyster was betting – with your money – that a new train station would result in a drastic increase in Amtrak ridership, something he absolutely no evidence of.
Since 1978, Amtrak officials had been quite contented with the 800 square feet they operated on Willard Avenue near Lockport Road. Peak traffic at the Niagara Falls station averages 30 passengers an hour, an event that occurs no more than four times each day. The smallish waiting room, about the size of a good sized dentist’s office, never lacked for seating, even with the hustle and bustle of 15 people getting on a train as another 15 disembark.
Dyster admitted the city will be responsible for maintaining the new Whirlpool Avenue station, but because he is not a developer and has no staff competent enough to calculate such things he is alone among all who built a train station in that he does not know what the estimated cost to maintain this train station will be.
Comparative studies show the new facility will cost city taxpayers will over a half a million dollars every year to maintain. Dyster admitted the city will be responsible for maintaining the station once it opens, but because he is not a developer and has no staff competent enough to calculate such things he is alone among all who built a train station in that he does not know what the estimated cost to maintain this train station will be.
Still he remains chipper and confident. It’s not his money, after all.
“The Niagara Falls Rail Station and Inter-modal Transportation Center is elemental to the redevelopment of Niagara Falls,” he said. “This facility will play a critical role in the future development of rail transportation.”
The President of the United States disagrees. Trump thinks there is no future in the development of rail transportation.
The new train station might make a swell place for one of those haunted house attractions they throw up every Halloween to scare the children. Maybe by-then former mayor Paul Dyster can pop out from behind a chimney and talk about how he saddled those kids with an endless debt in order to satisfy his own youthful fetish about playing with choo choo trains.