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Train Station Project Jumped Track

A Long Time Ago; Does Anyone Care?

By Mike Hudson

Tom DeSantis planned the whole thing.
From Whirlpool, one will see the Custom House (foreground) and train station (background).
Kevin Cottrell

Over budget, behind schedule and already the subject of litigation despite the fact it hasn't opened yet, Mayor Paul Dyster's Intermodal Transportation Center and Underground Railroad Interpretive Center remain an unmitigated disaster we've been allowed to watch unfold before our eyes year after year.

Dyster's paean to the 19th Century, housed, appropriately enough, partly in the 19th Century Customs House, located below Whirlpool Street in one of the city's most blighted and deserted districts, was supposed to have been designed to accommodate the state's new high speed rail system.

Whether it could or not is rather a moot point as pigs will fly before the state spends the billions and billions of dollars it would take to build a high speed rail system comprehensive enough to service a Podunk whistle stop such as Niagara Falls, which no longer even has a population large enough to qualify as a city.

Still, the project drags on, and generations of Niagara Falls taxpayers will come and go before it's finally paid for.


The project is the brainchild of longtime City Planner Tom DeSantis. He is such a good city planner that evidence of his planning can be seen just about anywhere you look in Niagara Falls.

Rather than locate the new train station near the falls and the casino, which is where every single person who comes to the city wants to go, the DeSantis plan calls for them to be offloaded in the most derelict and dangerous part of the city's North End, which itself is the most derelict and dangerous part of the city.

Pure genius and a big part of why Niagara Falls is what it is today.


So let's get right to the lawsuit. The Resetarits

Construction Corp., which was hired in 2010 to perform asbestos abatement work at the 150-year-old Customs House, encountered more asbestos, and way more pigeon droppings, than the city indicated were present, the suit states. This additional remediation took addition time, which the city attempted to penalize them for.

According to the suit, the city stiffed Resetarits out of $294,670 for the additional work.


Since Niagara Falls has only had a qualified city engineer briefly and sporadically since Dyster's election back in 2007, the high- priced Buffalo firm of Wendel Duchscherer has been at the project's helm.

Wendel Duchscherer - whose motto would seem to be "Da longer it take, da mo' money we make." - has also played a pivotal role in the first major public works project of the Dyster era, the reconstruction of Lewiston Road.

That project, begun in August of 2009,was supposed to have taken 24 months to complete, and cost $7.7 million. The project was completed late summer of 2013 and, by the time the lawsuits are finally settled, the cost will probably rise to three times the original estimates.

The relationship between the Dyster administration and Wendel Duchscherer is a close one as evidenced by the joint appearance of the City Planner and Wendel Program Manager Susan Sherwood at various out of town speaking events.

Their names appeared on the conference program in sunny Long Beach, Ca., last year to deliver a talk about how great the Niagara Falls train station project is, and they even wrote a monograph together about the project for the American Public Transportation Association.

To say that the city is paying far too much to its chosen engineering firm, a firm that would presumably be unnecessary could Dyster get it together to find a qualified city engineer, as every single mayor before him has done, isn't much of a stretch.


Thus far, $2.7 million has been spent on the renovation of the old Custom's House. We can't say restoration, because much of the work that's been done apparently consists of a fairly thorough cleaning of the interior.

The only real remodeling that's occurred has been the installation of a hideous 1970's picture window on the first floor of the mid-19th Century building's facade, a slap in the face to the idea of any historic integrity and an outrage that will be chuckled about ("The rubes") or indignantly scorned (The bastards!) by historic preservationists and architect buffs for a century to come.

Or until someone with taste restores the facade to its' proper appearance, whichever comes first.

Now we come to the most controversial aspect of the Dyster project, the proposed Underground Railroad Interpretive Center, which is to be housed in the old Customs House Building.

Thus far, a city commission appointed to investigate the city's ties to the Underground Railroad and set up the museum has received $1.75 million. For that amount, the city has received exactly nothing.


Certainly nothing that would contradict what this newspaper disclosed that - while Lewiston, Lockport and numerous Niagara County points in between could claim an actual link to the Underground Railroad based on historical documents and archeological finds - Niagara Falls was completely bereft of any such evidence.

There is one, single, lone mention, the highly dubious, ghostwritten "autobiography" of Harriet Tubman, to the effect that, one time, she rode on a train that passed over a bridge that at one time stood near the spot of the present day Whirlpool Bridge.

That's it, the full extent of the historical record. The anecdote may be true and it may not be, but the Dyster administration was willing to bet millions on the idea they could sell it as though it was.

They hired a guy named Kevin Cottrell at a high salary to sell that idea and he did. There was going to be a Harriet Tubman Park, a street would be renamed Harriet Tubman Boulevard and Dyster's $45 million Intermodal Transportation Center would include a 150-year-old building with a hideous 1970s picture window knocked into the front of it, that would serve to draw the lucrative Underground Railroad tourism market into Niagara Falls.

He had the local newspapers believing that Tubman led 300 "Freedom Seekers" through what is now the city of Niagara Falls to liberty in Canada. It was all a made up fairytale, designed to promote Cottrell's family business, which involved giving tours to alleged Underground Railroad sites across the Niagara Frontier.

Cottrell was eventually let go by Dyster after the Niagara Falls Reporter uncovered this considerable conflict of interest.

And we haven't heard much about the Underground Railroad Interpretive Center and Museum since.

Even though the commission created to oversee it still exists, and is still spending your money.


Over budget, behind schedule and already the subject of litigation despite the fact it hasn't even opened yet, the Niagara Falls Intermodal Transportation Center is being hailed as a success story across the continent by City Planner Tom DeSantis and Wendel's Sue Sherwood.

Around here it's just another insane waste of money, another example of Dyster's "big Ideas" gone wrong.



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

Nov 12, 2013