Former city engineer Curtis says DeSantis profits from train station




Was city Planner Tom DeSantis’ longstanding desire to build a new train station in the city’s North End driven by any actual need for a new facility or by something else?

Is his relationship with Wendel Duchscherer Architects and Engineers merely a professional alliance or something more dark and sinister?


Former City Engineer Robert Curtis claims Senior Planner Thomas DeSantis is on the take in the building of the train station.


Former city engineer Robert Curtis brought these questions out into the open over the weekend with a series of posts on Ken Hamilton’s Niagara Community Forum Facebook page, where he implied that DeSantis was on the take.

When another commentator remarked that the only one who would benefit from the train station project is the contractor building it, Curtis jumped in with both boots.

“And Wendel Engineering, and whatever kickbacks the planner got during this fifteen year or more design process,” he wrote.

Curtis went on to say that, once the train station was complete, DeSantis would likely find employment with Wendel.

“And a guaranteed part time position at full time pay when he retires from the city,” he wrote. “You name the amount of bet and I’ll take it! He’s already traveled the world as a ‘outside consultant’ on their dime.”



Senior Planner Thomas DeSantis declined comment on whether he had any hidden motivation for the push for a $44 million train station that is clearly overbuilt and far more expensive than needed for Niagara Falls.

Reached at his City Hall office this week, DeSantis said he had nothing to say about Curtis’s allegations.

“I’m not going to comment on anything he says,” he told the Reporter, a reaction Curtis found unsurprising.

“He has no defense,” Curtis said.

Repeated attempts to reach Mayor Paul Dyster for comment about Curtis’ allegations were unsuccessful.

The 20,000-square-foot, $44 million train station is designed to accommodate 300 passengers per day. Amtrak is currently averaging 68 passengers per day in Niagara Falls.

While the facility will be ready to open in May, the city does not have a contract with Amtrak (see related story) or anyone else to actually use it.

Curtis, who served as city engineer prior to Dyster’s election, said the entire burden of operating the new station will be placed squarely on the shoulders of Niagara Falls taxpayers.

“I sat in on negotiations, years ago, with them,” he said. “They said ‘We don’t pay rent, if you want us to stop in your city, provide us somewhere to stop, if not we will be happy to pass right by.’”

Currently, Amtrak uses a former warehouse near 27th Street off Lockport Road for its’ station. As things stand right now, the railroad is under no obligation to move anywhere else, although Curtis said that structural problems with the Whirlpool Bridge used by the railroad could force a switch.

“The (Whirlpool) bridge is in need of major repairs, and the contract with CSX Canada requires CSX to provide a majority of the funds for repairs,” Curtis said. “CSX only uses the bridge once a week to pick up empties at the NF rail yard. They have said they can switch their operations to the International bridge in Buffalo with minor disruption to their operation. They basically told Transportation Ontario they will no longer fund anything to do with (the Whirlpool) bridge.”

Amtrak has also considered a move away from Niagara Falls, which is one of the least used stations in the state, Curtis told the Reporter.

“I believe Amtrak was looking into how they could switch to the International bridge also but the customs issue becomes a problem because a train station would need to be built in Buffalo for that purpose,” he said.

Given Amtrak’s lack of interest in the new train station and Niagara Falls in general, what could have been the motivation behind Dyster and DeSantis’s push to spend $44 million to build a new train station?

Since the project got underway in 2010, DeSantis has frequently appeared at various places at the same time as engineers from Wendel. In fact, the planned train station’s design team was led by DeSantis, the city’s project manager, and Susan Sherwood of Wendel, project manager assigned to lead and coordinate the design of the station.


Susan Sherwood of Wendel traveled with Thomas DeSantis to talk about train stations. She denies that DeSantis ever got anything from her company which has made millions on what appears to be a wholly unnecessary train station.


In 2012, DeSantis’ name appears in connection with the Bus and Paratransit Conference in Long Beach, California. Sherwood was also at the conference. According to the published schedule for the conference DeSantis and Sherwood were to give a presentation on “Green Goals & Initiatives” for transit agencies.

According to the website for the event, DeSantis was listed not as senior planner for the City of Niagara Falls, but as an associate of Wendell Engineers of Amherst.

Also in 2012, DeSantis and Sherwood were scheduled to appear at a rail conference in Dallas, Texas, on “LEED, FTA and SHPO: A Case Study of the Niagara Falls Intermodal Transportation Center, Niagara Falls, NY.” Sherwood was unable to attend. Together they wrote a paper called the “Adaptive Reuse of a Historic Structure in the Development of a New Rail Passenger Station and U.S. Port of Entry” which was presented to the conference.

This past September, both DeSantis and Sherwood attended a $250-a-seat fundraiser for Dyster.

Repeated attempts to reach Sherwood for this article were unsuccessful but, in a previous interview on the subject, she denied that DeSantis had ever received any monetary compensation from Wendel.

Thus far, Wendel has received more than $3 million from the city for services related to the train station project.

DeSantis was first hired by the city in 1988. He is the city’s senior planner who oversees municipal land use planning; the city’s Planning Board, the Historic Preservation Commission, GIS services and is the city’s Policy and Coordinating Committee representative for the Greater Buffalo Niagara Transportation Council. DeSantis also manages grants for projects and is an adjunct professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo in the School of Architecture and Regional Planning.

In an interview with the Niagara Falls Reporter, Curtis questioned DeSantis’ relationship with Wendel and with the University of Buffalo.

“How many hours has he billed the city payroll while doing work as adjunct prof at UB?” he asked. “How much in city resources go to that UB position?”

Curtis described his relationship with DeSantis as strained during the time he served as city engineer.

“I learned to just say no when he walked into my office, before he could say a word,” he said.

Curiously Curtis was fired on day one of Mayor Dyster’s first term [2008] just as the city commenced building the $46 million courthouse. Dyster built the courthouse without the benefit of a city engineer as costs exploded.

Dyster later hired and fired three more city engineers.

Most of the time Dyster has been in office the city was been without a city engineer — as projects went over budget  and street reconstruction was done improperly.

The Lewiston Rd reconstruction, which Wendel supervised, almost doubled in price – yet Wendel was paid millions as they billed by the hour.

Dyster fired the last city engineer, Jeffrey Skurka, just prior to building the $44 million train station. DeSantis’ brother, Michael DeSantis, although not a licensed engineer, stepped in and is overseeing construction.

Wendel’s Sherwood co-supervises construction of the train station under a construction management contract.


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