NIAGARA FALLS, NY – As it does every morning, Amtrak's Maple Leaf was boarding passengers in Niagara Falls on Tuesday.
But once again, passengers were boarding at Amtrak’s cramped, Spartan like, 38-year-old station on the outskirts of town, and not at a much larger, brand new, $43 million dollar station which sits, just waiting, down the tracks near the Whirlpool Bridge in the city's North End.
"We're very close,” said Niagara Falls mayor Paul Dyster, which was essentially the same thing the city's senior planner Tom Desantis told WGRZ-TV during an open house at the new station more than two months ago.
“It’ll here be open very soon," DeSantis said on July 30.
However, as was the case two months ago, Amtrak has yet to sign a lease to even use the new place.
“The city has conceded, frankly, on virtually every issue at this point and we can't get them to sign a lease, " Dyster said, although he insists that Amtrak would not have erected signage in the building if it didn’t eventually plan to sign a lease. Indeed, Amtrak maintains it intends to be operating out of the new station after working out the lease formalities.
Unlike the current station, which Amtrak owns and for which it pays no rent, it will have to pay rent at the new station.
Dyster's proposed city budget indicates an expectation that Amtrak will pay $173,000 annually.
The hang up, according to Dyster, is how much Amtrak will kick in to help maintain the new station which is owned by the city, and which is therefore responsible for its upkeep.
Dyster's proposed 2017 spending plan includes a $380,486 budget line for the train station.
Deducting the $173,000 in anticipated payment from Amtrak, and $19,000 from the operators of an Underground Railroad Museum also housed in the station, it would leave the city and its taxpayers with $188,000 in expenses for maintenance in the first year alone, a sum which Dyster proposes transferring from the city’s general fund.
“That’s a startup figure," said Dyster. “Once we have a year under our belt, then we'll be able to sharpen our pencils and better predict what the costs to operate are going to be."
Dyster also believes that amount will be reduced, once it can be offset by revenue from yet-to-be-leased retail spaces in the station.
The train station sits at a border crossing: it is therefore a port of entry into the United States.
As the Department of Homeland Security has yet to install its offices and equipment at the station, Dyster notes that even if a lease with Amtrak were signed immediately, the station would still be unavailable for its use.
Dyster also wished to note that the train station, which was built using state and federal funds, along with nearly $5 million from the city’s casino revenues, is fully paid for.
“There’s no debt service on this building as is the case with many others, including the city’s courthouse,” he said.
However, others have questioned the wisdom on spending $43 million on a train station more than 20 times as large as the current station, in a city where Amtrak’s ridership figures indicate only about 90 passengers arrive or depart by train on an average day.