Amtrak move, Opening Day for Train Station delayed, as the weeks, months and possibly years go by

A remarkable publication from 2013 entitled “Station Program and Planning Guidelines”, put out by the passenger rail concern Amtrak to assist municipalities in the design, planning and construction of new “intermodal transportation centers” (aka train stations), raises continuing questions about the practicality of the $44 million facility recently built on Whirlpool Street, as well as how extensively (or limited) collaboration with the prospective tenant Amtrak has been in the run-up to opening day (if it ever takes place).

It’s anyone’s guess as to when or if Amtrak will be moving operations from its dated yet serviceable passenger depot on Lockport Road to the Customs House location, but if the past is any guide, we shouldn’t be holding our breath. The city’s recent experience seeking to cooperate with another rail line, CSX, highlights how difficult it can be to prod, beg, plead or coerce a large railroad conglomerate into working together with local government to implement necessary infrastructure projects and improvements.

The Lockport Street bridge, a major point of ingress to the city, was in a serious state of deterioration, leading to its closure in 2003. Four years later, it was reported that “ongoing discussions” between the city and CSX were still dragging on. CSX’s unresponsiveness to the city’s attempted outreach with proposed agreements became routine. The bridge was finally reopened in May, 2009, the impasse having inconvenienced residents and tourists for several years for little apparent reason other than recalcitrance on the part of railroad management.

“These Guidelines are intended to assist local governments, transportation agencies and authorities, designers, Amtrak staff and other stakeholders in the planning, design, construction, rehabilitation, and redevelopment of Amtrak served passenger stations and related facilities,” reads the preamble to the Amtrak Station Program and Planning Guidelines, a 151-page document that exhaustively sets out the requirements that Amtrak imposes on any municipality desiring to construct a new train station. Detailed specifications for everything from bathrooms, ticket counters, drinking fountains, pay phones (slightly humorous, in that they’re as antiquated as passenger trains themselves), snow removal systems, parking spaces, to trash receptacles and bicycle racks are set forth.

What got our attention, however, was the emphasis given in the Amtrak guidebook on active coordination between Amtrak, the city and the city’s contractors from the very inception of a new train station project.

“The planning and design of a new station can involve a number of complex issues that need to be carefully coordinated…” it states, “The station development process can involve a range of stakeholders including Amtrak, federal and state agencies, communities and developers. The project management plan must ensure a process that takes into account all required stakeholders, at the right time in the project.”

“Amtrak has multiple departments and groups that are critical to project progress. As states and communities begin to undertake the task of working on a station, their efforts will generally be coordinated with the Government Affairs Department and the Stations Planning group within the Real Estate Department. These departments will provide a point of contact for the development team, and will ensure that the project receives input from the critical areas of expertise within the Amtrak organization…”

amtrak

As everyone knows, Amtrak has yet to enter into a contractual agreement to move into and commence operations at the new Niagara Falls International Railway Station and Intermodal Transportation Center on Whirlpool Street.

So, assuming the city of Niagara Falls and its general contractor for the Intermodal Center since 2005, Wendel Duchscherer Architects & Engineers PC, “carefully coordinated” a series of “complex issues” with Amtrak, working closely with Amtrak’s “multiple departments and groups that are critical to project progress” to ensure that “the project receives input from the critical areas of expertise within the Amtrak organization,” what on earth could be the hold-up with Amtrak moving in and setting up operations in the new facility?

The scenario set out by Amtrak’s Station Program and Planning Guidelines document, as opposed to what has actually taken place, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on, as even a cursory analysis of ridership statistics and trends reveals, a vastly overbuilt and expensive new rail passenger station, appears to be an alternate reality.

In other words, one of two things happened. Either city, state and federal train station proponents, led by Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, worked closely from the very beginning with various Amtrak representatives and departments and Amtrak is finking out at the end of a multiyear development process towards the end of leveraging an even sweeter deal, or the Dyster administration blissfully shepherded the train station from conception to completion, hoping and praying that Amtrak would play nice and sign a contract at the eleventh hour.

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