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Will Train Station Costs Derail City?

By Frank Parlato

Amtrak will provide the same trains at the proposed new train station as they do at the present train station on Lockport Rd. The only difference will be that city taxpayers will pay a lot more for a brand new station.

The effects of the stalemated casino cash continue to be felt throughout the administration of Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster. The latest project to be placed in jeopardy, due to the cash shortage, is the planned new train station that is set to move into the final stage of its three-phase construction cycle.

The building of a new train station on Main St. to replace the current, functioning one on Lockport Rd. was conceived decades ago,. It sat largely dormant until Mayor Dyster and city planner Thomas DeSantis began to push it into reality.

Phase One of the "Inter-Modal Transportation Center and Train Station" is the renovation and building of the Underground Railroad Interpretive Center. That first phase remains currently incomplete as renovations continue on the Civil-War-era Custom House on Whirlpool Street.

Phase Two is moving along now: the relocation and installation of a new rail crossing carried out in cooperation with CSX, a supplier of rail-based freight transportation in North America.

Phase Three is the heart of the matter, the actual building of the train station terminal. The entire package is estimated to hit $45 million, with $25 million already on hand (although it has never been properly detailed to the public where that $25 million came from, it apparently is committed to the project from a variety of state and federal funding sources).

Another $16.5 million was committed to arrive via the federal taxpayers with Rep. Louise Slaughter and Sen. Charles Schumer taking the credit, as if it were their money. In response to a FOIL request, City Controller Maria Brown informed the Reporter that the city has already spent $5,931,843 on the train station, most of it in consulting and engineering fees for Wendel Engineering.

In response to our request, Brown wrote last week, "The total (original) estimated cost of the Transportation Center (for the city) …. is $7 million. This could change with any additional change orders as time passes."

Since that original estimate, change orders have come quick and fast.

Using Dyster's most recent numbers, there is a funding gap of at least $3.5 million over and above the federal and state money. The city has to come up with that, and pronto, for the project to continue.

It is expected that next week the Mayor will present the council with an invoice from Wendel expected to total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and this is on the heels of a $268,750 change order, last October.

Wendel has been paid $3.7 million to date, just to consult and draw plans.

But that is water under the railroad bridge.

The city needs millions more to keep this increasingly costly project going.

The problem is there's no casino cash, no city reserve and no sign of the casino cash impasse being settled in the near future or in the favor of the city.

So how does Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster close that gap?

We understand that Mayor Dyster is now promoting the notion that the city should borrow that gap money.

The challenge to this is that, given the city's present financial situation, there is no clear way to pay the money back. And, with the city's finances such as they are, we would expect that loan to come with a large interest rate attached.

The train station is an idea rooted in an outmoded form of transportation that relies on a non-existent ridership patronizing a building the city cannot afford to construct or maintain. The chickens, it would appear, have come home to roost.

With approximately six million visitors to the greater Niagara Falls region each year, and with approximately 10,000 train riders coming to town yearly, that means 16,438 visitors come by car and 35 visitors arrive by train on average each day of the year.

To say that virtually no one is riding the train into town would be an understatement. So, why build a $45 million train station? Why indeed.

But we're well past the question of why because Dyster and his city planner Thomas DeSantis have said time and again – with a strange wide-eyed zealotry – "build it and they will come."

In other words, if you build a new train station (to replace the one already in operation on Lockport St. which is, by the way, more than sufficient to accommodate the relatively few train travelers that come to town), suddenly more people will decide to ride on trains.

But what if, after all, the city cannot afford to build it? Forget whether it's a smart move. What if, financially, it's an impossible move?

If Dyster/DeSantis somehow manage to borrow the funds and build the building, there's a virtual army of questions that beg answering.

If this train station goes the way of the municipal building (and it shows every sign of doing just that) with change orders and added costs running out of control, we could see the final cost rise from $45 million to as high as $60 million, or more. Let us not forget, the municipal building started at $24 million and wound up at $46 million.

If the same holds true for the train station, the estimated gap of $3.5 million will pale in comparison to the final number.

The city might have to find not three or $4 million but $10 million or $12 million. And then, should Dyster/DeSantis somehow manage to fund the project and cut the ribbon in 2014, will the city be able to afford daily operation and maintenance?

City Planner DeSantis told the city council at an October 2012 meeting that he had no way of knowing how much the operation and maintenance would eventually cost city taxpayers until the building was completed. He actually did say that.

An unknown funding gap with no known way of closing it, operating costs with no numbers attached, a projected final cost estimated at $45 million (which is years old and certainly inaccurate), change orders and bump-ups certain to follow, a hellish financial position for Niagara Falls...and they want the taxpayers to somehow, some way, pay for their train station?

Train travel is, at most, a quaint niche transportation market. It's not worth turning the fiscal future of this city upside down for decades to come in some sort of tribute to a long-gone romantic past when we all rode trains...rode trains because not everyone yet owned cars and air travel was expensive.

On top of all that, Dyster proposed raising taxes eight percent last year, forcing the council majority to intervene and create a zero tax increase budget.

Train travel was a part of this city's legendary past, a past circa 1948 in which tourists and travelers were endlessly (or so we remember it as such) coming and going in our downtown. But what else do we remember or covet from that past? How about the Cold War, polio, incredibly high death rates from cancer and heart disease, no interstate highway, and institutionalized racial discrimination?

In rough summary, the entire Dyster administration, from construction projects to personnel matters, can be described as over budget, behind schedule and mysteriously costly. Time and again from the courthouse to the train station to Lewiston Road and LaSalle Waterfront Park, the projects have gone off the rails and risen in price with no clear explanation as to what happened.
And now the Dyster administration is perched on the edge of bankruptcy, hoping against hope that the casino cash is delivered soon in order to save face and keep from going down in history as the administration that busted the bank and brought a state control board to town.

People no longer ride trains in any large numbers and people no longer churn their own butter. Some things are better left in the past and fondly remembered as they stay there. To date, there are a number of questions that Dyster and DeSantis have either refused to answer or chosen to ignore when asked.

So, we'll ask some of those questions here:

If the train station climbs in cost, as it surely will, how will the city cover those costs? Will the city actually hold title to the building and act as landlord to Amtrak, Homeland Security and whomever else locates there in the proposed shops and stores?

What will it cost the city in legal staff and legal consultants to manage the building, execute landlord/tenant agreements and collect rent, etc.?

When will the day-to-day and yearly operation and maintenance costs be calculated?

The city will have to hire more police to secure the building and more maintenance employees to keep it clean and functioning: what will this cost? The municipal building cost more than $490,000 in 2012 to maintain. The train station may cost as much or more.

What will it cost to insure the building and handle the lawsuits due to injury, etc. that will surely result from owning and operating a large transportation facility?

Can the city back out of the deal right now, today, and walk away with no financial penalty?

Can the city put a hold on the project until its finances improve?

Can the city scale down the size/cost of the project immediately?

Is any or all of the federal money - $16.5 million – threatened by the current sequestration? There are a lot more questions, but not many answers coming from Dyster or DeSantis, the proud fathers of this costly, homely, transportation baby.

When viewed in the glare of the city's dismal financial future, the train station appears to be bad idea, ill planned and not properly financed.

Will the project go permanently off the rails in the coming months or will Mayor Dyster manage to keep it on track and on time at great cost to the city taxpayers?

The most interesting part of this train ride is right around the corner.



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Mar12 , 2013