Potential New York HSR Service Puts Rochester in a Quandary

City’s planned downtown station wouldn’t work with the new high-speed line

Governor David Paterson’s announcement last week that New York State would be investing in significantly upgraded rail lines, with a focus on the upstate corridor between Albany and Niagara Falls, couldn’t have been more exciting for the residents of Rochester, who would see travel times to Manhattan decrease by a factor of several hours. They would also see more reliable connections to other upstate cities like Albany, Syracuse, and Buffalo, to which there is currently no air service and only slow, infrequent Amtrak service today.

But Rochester’s leadership hasn’t been thinking much in recent years about the possibilities for intercity travel and had been focusing instead on innercity travel; as a result, the city developed a $230 million plan called Renaissance Square that would include the city’s main bus hub, a municipal auditorium, and a communicty college. The center is designed, almost ready for construction, and replete with $87 million in federal funds.

The problem is that the new center will not be located near the new train service, which would be accessed at the existing Amtrak station five blocks away. When the center was first being considered, many local politicians called for it to be located at the train station, but the argument for intermodality was ignored by Monroe County – the project sponsor – for the benefit of a more central location along Main Street, with the intention of sprucing up downtown in the process. Since Governor Paterson announced the state involvement in rail, there has been a renewed push on county leadership to reconsider its plans and relocate the transit center to the rail hub, so transportation services can be consolidated in one place.

Representative Louise Slaughter (D), who represents the area in the U.S. Congress (and a major rail supporter), wrote an editorial in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle arguing that the city should move the bus station to the transit center, and use some of the existing funds to create a combined mass transportation station:

“It must be noted, however, that it makes little sense to spend $230 million on a bus station — that prescribes to an outdated hub and spoke system — at Renaissance Square and not have enough left over for the Amtrak station upgrade. Cities across the nation are building combined bus and rail stations because it’s what travelers want. In fact, a 2002 Rochester train station redevelopment study affirmed that “a single intermodal terminal for local buses, inter-city buses and inter-city passenger trains is considered preferable to separate facilities.” But for a political decision to build a stand alone bus station, we’d already have a combined station. With this in mind, our community will be best served by turning the current Amtrak station into a high-speed rail ready, intermodal station. We should explore all options to make this happen.”

Rochester Subway agrees. Robert Duffy (D), the mayor of Rochester, argued in a similar op-ed that he, too, does not like the current plans for Renaissance Square, and asked the parties – including the Democratic-led city council and the Republican-run county board – to work together. But Maggie Brooks (R), who is the Monroe County executive, disagrees, seeing high-speed rail as merely a future possibility, rather than a shovel-ready construction project like Renaissance Square. And she repeats her argument that it makes little sense to move bus riders to a non-central location for the benefit of a few Amtrak riders:

“Project planners clearly felt it made no sense to move tens of thousands of daily bus passengers from our center city to a peripheral facility that transported only 300 people a day. As a result, plans to transform a stagnating city block located at Main Street and Clinton Avenue into a state-of-the art transit center began in earnest.”

In some ways, building a joint transportation center makes a lot of sense. It’s nice to have many different transportation options in one location. Allowing buses to converge on the center will improve the attractability of the high-speed service.

On the other hand, building a bus terminal away from the city center would be unfortunate, inconveniencing many riders and decreasing downtown’s pull. Ms. Brooks’ argument about the lack of existing Amtrak riders is an appropriate one. Should the plans for the transportation hub be derailed this close to construction for the benefit of the 300 existing train riders – a number that might increase to 1,000 if high-speed service is implemented? Plus, how many of those Amtrak riders will be jumping on the bus away?

Perhaps it would make the most sense to operate a smaller transit facility at Renaissance Square and move some operations to the Amtrak terminal, thereby reducing the incursion of buses on downtown’s Main Street and increasing access to rail service. Additional funds, of course, would have to be unearthed.

7 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • The buses are … hmm, how to put it politely … buses. A number of them surely can go to both?

    The HSR and regional bus terminal should be a single multi-model terminal, but the regional multi-model makes for only one local transport anchor. It should be on the local transport trunk grid, and ideally within one connection of all main local transportation routes, but there’s no reason why a regional multi-model terminal and a downtown bus terminal cannot both be on grid.

  • Andy Lynch

    Offer a free ride between the Amtrak terminal and the bus depot w/a recent Amtrak ticket. When given lemons….

  • I give Mayor Duffy a lot of credit here. Standing up and saying we should stop and reassess Ren Square is not the easy thing to do but is absolutely the right thing. But Brook’s and her supporters are like a runaway locomotive. As a community we have to voice our support for the Mayor and let the county know where we stand. Yes, buses CAN travel between two stations… but two stations of the capacity and proximity in question would not practical. A consolidated, intermodal station at the perimeter of downtown will allow for more attractive development at the core of downtown (Main and Clinton). It’s that simple.

  • Greg

    Anyone with an understanding of required turn proportions of HSR want to comment on what looks like an overly sharp turn that takes the current ROW into the existing Amtrak station? can that even handle HSR? If not, what would a re-alignment look like? Could it be rerouted to ren square?

    Or, what can those familiar with the Rochester development scene tell us about what potential exists on Clinton between Ren square and the train station?

  • Adirondacker

    A few weeks ago I surfed over the route between Albany and Buffalo using Google maps. I just wanted to see if the ROW of the Thruway was very much straighter than the old New York Central ROW. Without looking very closely and not being an expert I would say they are both about the same. Except for Rochester cities along the corridor are near the Thruway and the railroad goes through downtown. . . if HSR ever comes to NY Rochester’s Station may be south of downtown out where the ROW is straighter. So arguing over whether the buses should go to the train station may be moot. There won’t be a train station downtown. Rochester will trade faster service on HSR for a bus ride to the HSR station outside of downtown. They do it for the airport…..

  • The New York Central ROW is pretty straight between Depew and the eastern suburbs of Rochester, with only three turns that would upset Shinkansen trains or TGVs. Apart from a The sharp turn near the station is no big deal – trains don’t travel at high speed right outside stations. It’s unlikely any high-speed train will ever skip Rochester; even if it does, it’s unlikely it’ll go at full speed through Rochester’s city center.

  • N

    The actual ‘problem sections’ for high-speed trains are found largely east of Albany and between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. There are also some ‘problem sections’ in farmland between Syracuse and Rochester. Rochester downtown is plenty straight enough for stopping service (and any service bypassing Rochester would bypass downtown).

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