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Without High Speed Rail Service What Good Is New Train Station?

The new Niagara Falls International Railway Station and Intermodal Transportation Center

by Mike Hudson

Back in 2010, for Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, 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.

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.

Boy, was he ever wrong.

Dyster’s request came at a time when $8 billion had been budgeted under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the development of high-speed rail systems nationwide. President Barack Obama has allocated another $5 billion in high-speed rail funding as part of the 2010 federal budget.

The mayor remains a staunch Obama supporter.

“We must not turn our backs on the future, but rather unite behind the president to finish the job we started — moving America forward into a better, brighter future for all of our citizens,” Dyster said.

The present train station on Lockport Rd. is small, but large enough to accommodate the average of 30 passengers who leave the falls every day. The good news is that it costs taxpayers nothing to operate. The cost of running it is borne by Amtrak. That will soon change. Taxpayers will pay to maintain the new $44 million train station.

But less than a year later. In December 2011, Congress stripped the high speed rail program of funding and, while the $44 million boondoggle Dyster calls the Niagara Falls International Railway Station and Intermodal Transportation Center kept chug chug chugging along.

“The line between Buffalo and Niagara Falls is relatively low on the high-speed agenda,” Mayor Paul A. 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.

The decade he was talking about is now 60 percent over with and there will be no high speed rail anywhere in North America prior to 2020, if there is ever.

Big for its britches. The Niagara Falls Station is bigger than other city’s stations that do 10 times the passenger rides.

Praising the advantages of railroad passenger travel over the use of automobiles, Mayor Paul A. Dyster strongly endorsed the concept of high-speed rail traffic between Niagara Falls and New York City via Buffalo and Albany in 2010.

Addressing the city Council, he described then recent business trips to New York, which he said were more productive and efficient than if he had driven there on the State Thruway.

“I used the time on the train to catch up on messages and other business that could not be done in a car,” Dyster told the Council.

He could have flown, of course, as do most people going from Niagara Falls to New York City, but the 45-minute flight – as opposed to the eight hour train ride – probably wouldn’t have given him enough time to catch up on his messages.

Former state Sen. George Maziarz was one of the few public officials who saw high speed rail for the daydream for what it was and is.

“High speed rail is an illusion,” he said. “It can’t be done here using the existing rail infrastructure, and the creation of new infrastructure is far beyond what anybody’s talking about cost-wise.”

But Dyster remained undeterred.

“The Niagara Falls Station will immediately energize our ongoing local revitalization efforts —to create a hub for transit-orientated economic development and a centerpiece for cultural tourism development,” he said.

We’ll see. The train station is set to open next month and the city still doesn’t have a contract with Amtrak, Greyhound, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority or even the LaSalle Taxi Cab Company to use it.

At one of the several groundbreaking events held for the facility, Dyster’s starry eyed optimism remained intact, despite the lack of commitment.

“This is a great, historic milestone in the development, not just for the City of Niagara Falls, but our bi-national region as a whole,” he said. “The new station will serve as a hub for multiple modes of transportation, ranging from train, bus, taxi, to park-and-ride services.”

As you can see there are very few scheduled departures leaving Niagara Falls on any given day. Why then was a $44 million train station needed? Because Mayor Paul Dyster said the city would need it for high speed rail. But high speed rail is not coming to Niagara Falls or anywhere else in the state. Even in California it has been postponed for perhaps another decade. But no one ever calls Dyster to account for his blunders.

As if the 2011 Congressional defunding of high speed rail wasn’t enough, the ongoing fiasco in California (See related story) – where billions have been spent to build a relatively insignificant 118 mile section of track that is now four years behind schedule – may be the final coup de grace in the “bullet train” concept.

In fairness, the mayor hasn’t said much about high speed rail lately. He knows it’s deader than the deadest duck. He’s stuck the taxpayers of Niagara Falls with a white elephant “International Railway Station and Intermodal Transportation Center” that will cost a small fortune every year to heat and maintain.

He took the Old Customs House, a Civil War era building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and cut a big picture window into the façade that wouldn’t look out of place on any 1960s built suburban tract house.

Out back, we’re told, there will be a life size statue of Harriet Tubman, who never set foot in Niagara Falls. There will be a museum or an interpretive center dedicated to the history of the Underground Railroad, a history that has no definitive link to Niagara Falls despite hundreds of thousands of tax dollars having been spent attempting to prove otherwise.

During his first term in office, it was common currency among Dyster supporters to opine that their man was possessed of an intellect that could see “100 years into the future.”

In this particular case, they may have been right. Because it will be at least a century, or maybe longer, before any politician of any party musters up the gall to pitch high speed rail as a viable campaign issue again.

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