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By Ron Churchill

At the end of the day, the planner for this city, Tom DeSantis, is betting on train travel making a comeback.

If we build it, they will come.

Of course, the bet is made with public money.

But interestingly -- from a strictly municipal point of view -- it is a pretty well-leveraged bet, using in the end only about 3 or a few more million of city money to build an estimated $37.5 million first-class Niagara Falls International Railway Station.

Three or $4 million buys you a $37 million train station, plus, of course. the cost of maintenance and upkeep.

A good portion of the proposed train station, along with most of the customs house, will be used by the federal Department of Homeland Security. This helped finance the deal -- $33.8 million of the project is being federally and state-funded.

Of the approximately 26,000 square feet of the proposed train station, between 10,000 and 12,000 square feet will be dedicated to Homeland Security, City Planner Tom DeSantis said.

The customs house is about 4,500 square feet per floor. Homeland Security will occupy the entire second floor and about a third of the first floor, DeSantis said.

The much-talked-about Underground Railroad exhibit space (not a museum) -- which the generous (with taxpayer money) Mayor Paul Dyster hired Kevin Cottrell at $74,000 per year to develop -- will occupy a mere 1,014 square feet of the first floor.

It is not a museum, it is a small exhibit.

But we won't say that Dyster was pandering to black voters. No not at all.

Still, to put it in perspective, it is 1,014 square feet, about a 25-by-45-foot room, no bigger than some people's living and dining rooms.

Clearly, the Underground Railroad "exhibit" will not be a destination attraction and at most will be a by-the-way sight, something that will take perhaps 20 minutes to see in full.

One wonders why we need a $74,000 full-time city employee to oversee this tiny exhibit.

Getting back to the overall project:

"The city's share (of the project cost) currently is about $3.2 million. That will probably go up," DeSantis said. City Council Chairman Sam Fruscione explained, "The biggest portion of (the funding) is coming from the federal government because of the homeland security concerns at the international border, which makes 100 percent sense. It's almost like a fortress we're building here."

There will be an atrium between the customs house and the train station, also part of which will be occupied by Homeland Security, DeSantis said.

"There (will be) three buildings: The station, the atrium, and the customs house. They're all connected," he said.

The project has been criticized for its high cost and the relatively low number of riders currently using the existing station on Lockport Street.

"It's a total waste of money," State Sen. George Maziarz said. "This is money that should have been used to do something with the Robert Moses Parkway between Findlay Drive and downtown. It's just crazy," Maziarz said. "I actually ride the train to Albany , not every week but periodically. A handful, if that, get on the train in Niagara Falls. In a city with 12 percent unemployment, there's a lot more that could be done with that money. There's a lot more needs in the city ... than building a railroad station that's going to create zero permanent jobs."

Presently, there about 20,000 to 25,000 riders at the current train station on Lockport Street per year. That is about 70 per day. That number includes arrivals and departures, DeSantis said.

"Once the station opens up, they project that to double. In a year or two, it will be up to around 40,000 to 50,000 -- 125 per day -- that's boarding and alighting, people getting on and off," he said.

In other words, 65 going one way and the same 65 coming back.

"It's really about efficiency of operations," DeSantis said. "We could have built a little station with no Customs and Immigration, but ... you certainly have to provide those border services. The station was always designed, right from the beginning (in 1998-99), as a way to provide those services in the most efficient means possible. When we did that development phase we realized that if you separated Customs and border protection and the inspection of international travelers from the station itself, it would fail. You had to have those combined and seamless.

"That's in part why our station is a little more expensive than it would be otherwise, but remember, we're rebuilding bridges. We're rebuilding tracks. We're rebuilding a Civil War-era building. We're rebuilding the infrastructure around the site, both on Bath Avenue, on Main Street, and on Whirlpool Street. So there's a lot of infrastructure in addition to the terminal itself."

But critics aren't hard to find.

"The train station? In a decaying city. So sad," Councilman Bob Anderson said. "You would think the people who make these decisions would sit down with the people who breathe the fresh air and say, 'What do you think about this?' Scary. Think about it. You're spending this kind of money for this particular project when we could use this money to do some beautiful things to enhance the city's growth, not demise. Sixty-seven percent of the people who live in the city are on social services. Who is to gain by this (project)? The taxpayers? I don't think so."

And operating costs?

"The cost will be shared by the city and by its tenants. So, while ... the Department of Homeland Security won't pay rent, everybody else that uses the building ... Amtrak and anyone else in the building will pay rent," DeSantis said.

"It will not, in all likelihood, cover the costs of operating the station. There will probably be a deficit. What that deficit is, I don't know," he said.

This is rather a peculiar statement and maybe indicative of how government projects are done in these times. To not know what it will cost to maintain it is like saying, "I will buy a house. I know what the purchase price is, but do not know how much it will cost me to live there monthly."

One source familiar with maintenance costs said the train station will costs taxpayers in excess of $1 million per year. The project is in its second of three phases. An initial "concept" phase of the project cost about $711,000.

Phase One, stabilization and restoration of the 1860s custom house, was about $2.5 million, and that project is 99 percent complete, DeSantis said.

"The customs house is looking nice," Fruscione said. "I'm glad to see they're renovating that because it was built in the 1860s and it's still standing so we should keep it."

Phase Two, which involves the replacement of the railroad bridges over Main Street and Main Street reconstruction, will cost about $6.8 million and is about 60 percent complete, DeSantis said.

"We're demolishing the two old bridges that were over Main Street. We're going to put a brand-new bridge in its place. When the new bridge is there, there will be new track on top of it as well. We're going to dig up the street (Main Street ), from Ontario all the way to Bath, and replace that street and the sidewalk," he said.

Phase Three, the final phase, has not started yet, and will involve construction of the transportation center, Amtrak Station, and site work. It will cost a projected $27.5 million, DeSantis said.

Add it all up and it's about $37.5 million, a bit less than previous estimates that placed it at $44.5 million.

The project is scheduled for completion sometime in the winter of 2013-14, DeSantis said, adding that construction on the train station will begin in the spring.

And the Lockport Street station?

"It will close as a passenger terminal and remain open as a maintenance facility," he said.

In his own words: City Planner Tom DeSantis

"When they built the Interstates, there weren't that many cars. There are a lot of people using the Interstate system now. So in the beginning, was the investment worth it? Only if you count what the benefit was years later when it became a more widely used thing.

"It's a similar thing with the airport. We invested at least as much in the airport as we did in the train station. ... There were no passengers at the Niagara Falls International Airport . They started with zero, and went up. So you could say they did really good. The train station has always (done well) historically. (But) numbers have gone down after 9/11.

"They've started to come back up recently, as has most of rail travel everywhere. ... If you look at across the states, there are many new rail projects on the books, in design, and in construction.

"The expectation is, that as you rebuild the rail infrastructure, that as you separate freight trains from passenger trains so that passenger trains can keep on schedule, and reduce travel time and increase on-time performance, you will attract more riders. You're attracting riders now with (poor) service and not-great amenities at the current station locations. The expectation is, by most, that those numbers of riders will continue to increase over time.

"You'll have a different choice for people who can come to the city without a car or without a plane. Or, for people who come by plane, they have another opportunity to travel the region without necessarily traveling by car. We're a city that is claiming to be a world-class tourist destination -- which may or may not be the case at the moment. But if you have aspirations to be one in the future, you have to be able to offer services that people expect in other world-class destinations, one of which is reasonable train service. As Canada and the Golden Horseshoe continue to grow and continue to expand their use of rail -- commuter rail in particular -- the expectation is that if we're connected to that, our closest and largest-growing metropolitan area, we will benefit both from the inter-regional travel as well as travel through the region, between the major urban centers, which are Toronto and New York City.

"You can currently get from Toronto to New York City by Amtrak, but you have to cross the border and you have to go through our station: Lockport Street (for Customs and Immigration). They have a former warehouse where people have to walk into this little room. It's not very pleasant. The bigger problem is that the current station was never designed or meant to be a passenger facility. People have to get off for inspection in the warehouse. They're not at the bridge. They're at a warehouse on Lockport Street. It's a time-consuming process. At the end of the day, it discourages people from taking the train across the bridge unless they have to, because it doubles the time essentially to cross the bridge.

"The new station will be like an airport. At an international flight at an airport you have sealed corridors. You get off the plane and into these corridors, and the guy says, 'Show me your passport,' then you're free to go. It will be the same thing in this station. When a train crosses the bridge, anyone who needs to get off ... they'll get off on the platform. The platform will be secure, and they'll go into a hallway. The hallway will be secure. They'll go into the hallway into Customs, where they'll present their passports. People will inspect their bags. The train will be at the platform. ... The platform is secure, and everyone getting on and off the train is in a secure area. ... So the people get off the train, go through security, and then are released back into the station. Feel free to leave, or get back on the train, or do whatever they want to do. Other people, once the train is clear, or the passengers are cleared off the platform, they just open another set of doors so people can go from the station right onto the train. It will be efficient. Instead of taking place in a warehouse hole, it is a nice, clean facility where you have amenities and everybody can take care of things safely and efficiently."

E-mail Ron Churchill at ronchurchill@yahoo.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Feb. 21 2012