Still no contract with Amtrak; Train station remains vacant

 

By Mike Hudson;

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster and City Planner Tom DeDantis have spent upwards of $44 million of taxpayer money to build a train station that is now facing a slight possibility that no train will ever use and a much more likely possibility that the prime tenant Amtrak will pay only a minsicule percentage of the total costs of the facility’s overhead.

Just as we predicted.

City taxpayers will likely be burdened with the operational expenses.

This stands to reason.

The train station was not built because the city needed a new train station; there is clearly no demand for a large new train station when passenger demand in this city is annually about 32,000 train riders per year.

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Tom DeSantis is the mastermind behind the new Niagara Falls train station.

That means 16,500 coming and going. In other words 90 passengers per day (45 arriving and 45 departing.).

Why was such a large station built in a near bankrupt city? As the Reporter has pointed out for several years, the city has no contract with Amtrak, the also nearly bankrupt passenger rail service Dyster and DeSantis built the train station to serve. Amtrak officials did not want or ask for a new train station, and now appear to be reluctant to ink any agreement with the city that will cost them any disproportionate amount of money based on their small ridership numbers.

The present train station occupies around 800 square feet of a former railroad warehouse on Willard Avenue off of Lockport Road, which based on their passenger demand is precisely the size the train station should be.

The train station built by Dyster and DeSantis is 22,000 square feet, making it one of the largest train stations in New York, despite Niagara Falls ranking 15th out of Amtrak’s 19 stops at cities with populations of more than 15,000, along the entire New York Empire Service line.

“It’s disappointing they’re fighting over every nickel in the lease,” Dyster told the Niagara Gazette this week. “They’re taking a very hard line in the negotiation. As usual, it’s about the almighty dollar.”

But what else would a monetary lease be about?

 

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The new , destined to be almost always empty, over sized train station is more than 20 times the size needed by Amtrak.

None of this dispute will come as a surprise to readers of the Niagara Falls Reporter. We have been writing about the lack of a contract with the railroad – or any other entity – for more than a year.

We reported that Amtrak, because it is subsidized by federal taxpayers, cannot legally lease or pay for more space than a set formula based on ridership.

As for the large, 22,000 square foot size of the new Niagara Falls train station, Amtrak’s regulations call for the renting of only about 800 feet or so of the entire facility.

Indeed Amtrak rents no more than 18,100 square feet for mega cities – where stations must handle more than 300 passengers during peak hours such as Miami Central Station. Amtrak’s 20 year lease in St. Paul, with three times the ridership of Niagara Falls, is for only 3,800 square feet.

 

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The present train station is more than sufficient to handle the 90 passengers per day Niagara Falls presently gets. City taxpayers do not have to pay one dime for the present station,

Amtrak’s published regulations call for a depot of no more than 1,150 square feet for destinations, like Niagara Falls, that serve between 25 and 50 passengers during the “peak hour” of the day.

Rochester has four times the population of Niagara Falls, and nearly five times the train ridership – at 141,576 riders last year. The new Rochester Intermodal Transportation Center is about half the size of Niagara Falls at 12,000 square feet. Amtrak is renting 25 percent of the Rochester facility which is also oversized based on the needs of that city.

SO let us be succinct (again): There should be no surprise that Amtrak won’t pay much of the costs for an oversized train station they did not ask anyone to build.

By law, Amtrak can only pay for about 800 square feet of space because of Niagara Falls’ low ridership no matter how many square feet are in the new facility.’

We pointed this out in an article r published May 26, 2015 and repeatedly since then.

But this week’s affirmation by the Gazette, particularly in regard to Dyster and DeSantis’s frustration, is significant.

DeSantis told the paper that an agreement was imminent back in February. The “grand opening” of the new station occurred almost a month ago.

Not only does the city lack a contract with Amtrak, but agreements with U.S. Customs, retailers who were supposed to fill about 5,000 sq. ft. of the space and even the city’s own Underground Railroad Heritage Commission – which reportedly will operate an exhibit the building – remain absent.

While Dyster and DeSantis have told the public that little “local” tax money was involved in building the station, city taxpayers will now soon pay for security, janitorial and cleaning services, window cleaning, escalator maintenance, HVAC maintenance, plumbing & electrical, maintenance and repair for buildings and grounds, utilities – heat, water, electric, supplies, and planning, supervision, and other costs annually.

In reports available online, operational costs are calculated by annual cost per square foot. The newly renovated Union Depot Intermodal Transportation Center in St. Paul was estimated to cost $40 per square foot per year to operate.

If a contract is reached with Amtrak, the federally subsidized and regulated company will pay an estimated $50,000 per year.

US Customs will not be required to pay rent.

The Underground Railroad exhibit may occupy a portion of the first floor in the adjacent old Custom House. It is a not for profit and based on demand may not be able to pay much rent at all.

That leaves about $800,000 to be paid by city every year no matter how few riders appear at the station.

 

Side note:

Here are Amtrak’s figures:

Amtrak served the following New York locations:

New York City (Penn Station) 9,493,414

Albany-Rensselaer 769,413

Rhinecliff 177,375

Hudson 167,286

Syracuse 152,957

Rochester 144,703

Buffalo-Depew 126,466

Poughkeepsie 88,354

New Rochelle 84,777

Utica 65,916

Schenectady 60,811

Croton-Harmon 45,578

Buffalo-Exchange Street 36,183

Niagara Falls 32,598

Saratoga Springs 32,513

Yonkers 22,187

Plattsburgh 12,632

Fort Edward 9,891

Rome 9,315

Amsterdam 9,197

Westport 4,751

Port Henry 2,264

Fort Ticonderoga 1,996

Whitehall 1,537

Rouses Point 1,353

Port Kent 848

 

 

 


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