Lonesome train on a lonesome track

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Dyster’s folly cost taxpayers millions

What is there left to say about Mayor Paul Dyster’s new train station?
That it was the biggest misuse of taxpayer money here in the last half century? Mayor Dyster and his cohort, governmental gadfly Tom DeSantis, dropped nearly $43 million into the project, which very well might be obsolete as early as next year (See related story).
They also desecrated the old Customs House, a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places by, among other “improvements,” cutting a large picture window – of the type found on any cheap suburban dwelling – into the proud, river stone wall of the structure, originally built in 1863.
Mayor Dyster and Mr. DeSantis told the gullible that the station would also house a museum dedicated to the history of the Underground Railroad in the city. The problem was that there is no Underground Railroad history in the city, but around $3 million went into that as well.
Upscale shops and restaurants would fill out the massive 22,000-square-foot space, Dyster and DeSantis assured the ignorant. Dyster had been talking about the new train station since 2010, and ground was broken more than three years ago. And in all that time, the city’s crack community development and economic development teams have been unable to attract a single tenant to the white elephant sitting at 2245 Whirlpool Street.
Except for Amtrak, of course. The taxpayer-funded, money losing railroad had Dyster twisting in the wind, refusing to sign a contract to occupy the station even after it had officially opened. Finally, a settlement was reached, although fuzzy math prevents an accurate assessment of how much of the station’s operating costs will be covered.
One thing is certain, however. The Niagara Falls station is more than 10 times larger than what Amtrak specifications call for, given the number of passengers arriving or departing here daily, fewer than 100.
“It feels really good. It’s a relief,” said DeSantis, who reacted to the belated opening. “This is the thing everyone has been waiting for — service to start at the station. We all wished it would have happened a little sooner, but sometimes these things just take a little longer to happen.”
DeSantis declined to specify who “everyone” was.
Dyster himself made excuses.
“We are a tourist city and we are fortunate to be located on the rail line between two of the great metropolises in North America – Toronto and New York City,” said Dyster. “It’s also a great responsibility because we have to have a custom facility, which made this a more complicated project.”
At 22,000 square feet, the new Niagara Falls train station is one of the largest in the state despite the fact the Niagara Falls has one of the lowest ridership numbers in the state (Amtrak posts all its ridership numbers on its website, and we have republished this information for several years as we correctly predicted this debacle in dozens of stories).
Dyster, of course, doesn’t call it a “train station” at all, but an “intermodal transportation center.”
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Since the dictionary defines “intermodal” as involving two or more different modes of transportation, one might suppose he is referring to the taxicabs that pick up and drop off passengers in that particularly desolate section of the city’s forbidding North End.
Not given to straight talk, and allegedly the holder of an advanced degree from some college back east, he is often forgiven for using ten-dollar words when a twenty-center would do just as well.
In the beginning, it was all about high speed rail. President Barack Obama had committed to funding the concept, with New York State alone to receive $151 million to promote the concept. Dyster used the publicity to justify spending $44 million on a new train station here, and the suckers bought right in.
It wasn’t long before the plan died in Congress.
The now abandoned Empire Corridor proposal — a designated route between Buffalo and Albany — did not call for an extension of high-speed rail service from Buffalo to Niagara Falls to begin with, but Dyster argued that should not be viewed as an indication the city is being left out of the region’s overall rail improvement plans.
“More, better and faster train service can be an engine for economic growth throughout New York State,” he said.
And that wasn’t all.
“The line between Buffalo and Niagara Falls is relatively low on the high-speed agenda,” Dyster admitted after attending an Albany meeting on fast-rail service during the height of the 2010 hysteria. “Transportation planners are thinking about the eventual possibility of re-establishing railroad commuter service between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, and we could see expanded use of the ‘Maple Leaf’ train to Canada if the downstate portion of its route is upgraded for faster service.”
Who these “transportation planners” were or whether the actually existed anywhere other than the mayor’s mind was never determined.
“Perhaps most exciting of all, it gives us an opportunity to play a leading role in development of a high-speed rail system that is going to connect New York City to Toronto, one of the most exciting developments in transportation in all of North America over the next decade,” Dyster said in 2010.
So he went out and spent $43 million of other people’s money. For nothing.
Even as a boy, Dyster was fascinated with trains. A former employee of a drugstore near Dyster’s boyhood home told the Reporter that Dyster “used to come in every week with a roll, two rolls of film to be developed. He’d go down by the old train station, the rail yards, and take pictures of the locomotives, the men working on them. … He must have taken a thousand pictures.”
Now he’s presiding over a largely empty train station that must now be regarded as a public safety hazard, according to one former law enforcement official who visited the facility last week.
“There wasn’t ten people in there,” he told the Reporter. “This massive space, no security, staircases… It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
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