Niagara Falls – With the city’s new train station and Underground Railroad Heritage Museum ready to open by the end of May, a couple of questions linger.
How do you open a history museum when not a single artifact has been acquired or display fabricated? Despite the fact that the city’s Underground Railroad Commission has been given $2.45 million in casino cash, it is unknown what – if anything – they have done with the money.
Other than issuing a preliminary report shortly after the formation of the commission that failed to establish any unequivocal link between the Underground Railroad and what is now the City of Niagara Falls, little has been heard of the shadowy organization.
With just five months to go before the train station is ready to open in the Old Customs House on Whirlpool Street, it seems highly unlikely that any sort of meaningful exhibit will be ready on opening day.
City Planner Thomas DeSantis touted the museum’s potential as a revenue source. The museum would not turn people away and will likely be free for schoolchildren, he said, but officials want visitors to see the museum as something of value and be willing to pay something for it.
Genuine artifacts connected with the Civil War and slavery in particular are at a premium, difficult to obtain and expensive. DeSantis didn’t make clear exactly what he expects people to pay to see.
Other than the proposed museum, the 22,000 square foot train station facility only has one other tenant – Amtrak itself. Though DeSantis and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster made much of the ability to attract other tenants like offices and restaurants to the facility, none has come forward.
This is perhaps due in part to the fact that very few people ride the train into and out of Niagara Falls. On an average day, just 64 passengers use the service, most of them commuters going to work in Buffalo.
While DeSantis told the city Council this week that costs at the new station will be shared 50-50 with Amtrak, no contract to that effect has been approved by the Council, and there is no reason to believe the money-losing passenger train service will need any more space than the 800 square feet it currently occupies off of Lockport Road.
A small corner of the massive building will be more than adequate for all of the railroad’s needs.
City Controller Maria C. Brown said officials are in the process of setting up a separate stand-alone fund for the train station, rather than mixing operational costs into the general budget.
“Everybody will see clearly the revenues it generates and the expenses associated with it,” Brown said. “We are hoping the train station generates enough revenue to sustain its expenditures.”
Maintenance, utilities, security and other expenses will be the responsibility of the Niagara Falls taxpayers for generations to come or until whenever money-losing passenger train service finally comes to an end, whichever comes first.
While the $41 million cost of the new train station was largely justified by the possibility of high speed rail coming to New York State, the chances of such a development have gotten more and more remote.
Congress pulled the plug on funding high speed rail in the Northeast Corridor and, in California, the only other serious effort anywhere in the country to build high speed rail is all but dead amid huge cost overruns.