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Lawmakers split, but advocates support $6B 'high speed' rail plan by NYSDOT

The newly proposed Empire Corridor rail plan, which is not very high speed, is better than not doing anything says the Empire State Passenger Association

BUFFALO, N.Y. — As we previously reported, the New York State Department of Transportation took 14 years putting studying various high speed rail plans for the 461-mile Empire Corridor. 

The plan outlines five different proposals. The DOT supports a plan called Alternative-90B. This plan would install a third rail line between Buffalo and Schenectady that runs adjacent to the CSX controlled lines. The length of the new rail would be 273 miles. 

But the preferred plan is not high speed, at least by federal standards. 

The plan would only allow for a maximum speed of 90 mph by passenger trains, in some portions of the corridor. 

New York State Senator, and chairman of the transportation committee, Tim Kennedy admits that's it's not as fast as he would like, but it's a good start. 

"It makes rail more reliable and dependable here in the state of New York, especially upstate," Senator Kennedy said. "I think we need that."

LEARN MORE: High Speed Rail Empire Corridor

Kennedy's counterpart on the transportation committee, Senator Patrick Gallivan, doesn't think the plan makes sense. 

"This costs $6 billion, for what benefit?" Senator Gallivan asked. "Slightly increased ridership?"

According to the study, the base ridership of passenger trains on the Empire Corridor is about 1.6 million per year. The preferred plan the DOT supports suggests annual ridership would increase to 2.6 million by 2035. 

It's worth noting, however, the report says the project wouldn't be completed until 25 years after implementation.

Sources says it could be several years before the first rail tie is installed because the legislature hasn't even held a public hearing yet and more environmental studies are needed. 

"The price tag is a heavy one," Senator Kennedy said. "But I think it's a great investment for upstate for generations to come."

The study outlines that there would be significant annual financial losses if "alternative-90B" was pursued. 

"It operates at a loss of over $30 million a year on the backs of taxpayers," Senator Gallivan said. "It just doesn't make sense to me."

The Empire State Passenger Association supports the projects outlined in the environmental impact statement released by NYSDOT. 

"We have long supported the incremental improvement approach, which is what the plan talks about," said Bruce Becker, communications director for ESPA.

Becker says that pursing the projects that are outlined in the study would benefit passengers with more round trips daily between Albany and Buffalo. He says the plans also provide a necessary third rail along the Empire Corridor west of Albany. 

"Going to that additional third track across upstate New York at a maximum 90 miles an hour is a reasonable, achievable outcome," Becker said. 

While ESPA supports the majority of the plans outlined in the report, the one hurdle that needs to be addressed is how long the project is going to take.

"The entire program once it started, and there is no implementation date at this point, is a 25 year build out," Becker said. "Certainly, that concerns us."

Senator Kennedy told 2 On Your Side that the ultimate goal should be developing a high speed rail system that achieves 150-200 mph speeds in certain areas. 

ESPA supports Senator Kennedy's vision. 

"While we simply agree with Senator Kennedy, that faster, shorter trip times would be preferable," Becker said. We're also realistic about what can be done from both a economic standpoint, cost standpoint, and the fact of how many passengers will be using it."

The NYS Department of Transportation refused multiple requests for an interview for this story and did not answer specific questions by email. 

Senator Kennedy said he plans to hold public hearings sometime in 2023 on this issue, but none have been scheduled yet. 

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