No budget, no contracts, no idea about train station opening here


Niagara Falls – Although the Dyster administration has had more than five years to come to an agreement with Amtrak for use of the new, $44 million train station on Whirlpool Street, market the facility to other prospective tenants and come up with a budget to run the place, it has not done so.

Now, with the station and Underground Railroad Interpretive Center set to open in May, there are far more questions than there are answers.

It was back in August 2010 that the first of several official groundbreakings was staged at the site of the new 20,000 plus square foot train station and the adjoining 9,000 square foot Custom House.

Since no contract exists between the city and Amtrak, there is no guarantee that the financially troubled passenger railroad service will even use the new station. And even if an agreement is reached, it is unlikely that the railroad will want to lease much more than the 800 square feet it currently occupies on 27th Street off Lockport Road.

City Planner Tom DeSantis told the city Council last week that a “management plan is contingent on finalizing a lease with Amtrak, and those lease terms and negotiations are ongoing.”

Because the train station opening is imminent, and because city officials would be embarrassed beyond belief to open a train station that no trains came to, Amtrak pretty much has the upper hand in the negotiations.

A rational individual might be forgiven for asking why the city would spend $44 million on a new train station without a single agreement in place regarding its use, but apparently DeSantis and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster are operating on the “If you build it, they will come,” theory.

Not only is there no agreement with Amtrak after more than five years, but no one in the administration seems to have given any thought whatsoever to how much it will cost to operate the new facility. There is no projected budget, and an accurate financial forecast has to be constructed in the next 90 days.

“We’ve reported in the past on plans for the business model for the train station — it’s not finalized — but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been thought put into this,” Dyster said.

Asked by Councilman Charles Walker about operational expenses, DeSantis pulled a figure of $100,000 a year out of thin air, but added a caveat.

“The $100,000 reflected the operation of the facility as independently operated by a third party, that’s not likely to be the case,” he said.

The city will have to provide for maintenance and security needs, heat, air conditioning and lighting, snow plowing in the parking lot and a myriad of other expenses. Obviously, DeSantis’s $100,000 figure would barely cover the salary and benefit packages of two janitors and isn’t even in the ballpark of what the cost will actually be.

[Two full time $25,000 maintenance persons with $21,000 health insurance, $4,000 pension and other benefits etc. equals $100,000.]

Much of the justification for the new train station in 2010 was pinned to the promise of high speed rail, a pet idea of President Barack Obama. But in 2011, Congress defunded the high speed rail program and it remains dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the lease for an associated venture, the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Interpretive Center also remains undrafted and unsigned.

While the commission has received $2.45 million in city casino revenue since its formation in 2009, no one at City Hall seems to have any idea about what they’ve done with it, other than to produce a report that provided no incontrovertible evidence that links what it now the city of Niagara Falls with the activities of the antebellum Underground Railroad.

The museum and the city’s connection to the Underground Railroad were the fanciful notions of Kevin Cottrell, a former city employee who was fired after this newspaper uncovered him promoting a private Underground Railroad tour business he owned on city time.

No artifacts have been known to have been acquired for the museum, no displays have been commissioned. The museum, after five years, remains nothing more than a vague idea.

And yet, DeSantis told Council members last week that the city planned to charge visitors $5 to see whatever it is there will be to see in 90 days. The revenue projections are another story. They require the city’s Department of Economic Development to bargain with tenants for lease contracts before they can be outlined with accuracy.

DeSantis said conversations have been “started” and city officials are meeting with a New York branch of Chase bank to try to establish contracts.

Back in 2010, Dyster and DeSantis were talking about high speed rail service, an “intermodal transportation center” that would house upscale shops and restaurants, a cutting edge moneymaker that would be the envy of municipalities throughout the state.

Now, in just 90 days, the city will open a train station that has cost taxpayers $44 million. There are no signed tenants, no operating budget and officials here seem clueless about what the ongoing costs will be for city taxpayers.

Dyster and DeSantis have had five years to address these issues but chose instead to wait until the last minute to begin the process.

That’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.


How much will it cost to maintain this? Senior Planner Thomas DeSantis said it might cost $100,000. This is obviously wrong.


Now, for the first time, Niagara Falls taxpayers will pay for a train station. Amtrak’s present train station is paid for by Amtrak. How much will it cost?


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