High-Speed Rail New York Rochester NY

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“It must be noted, however, that it makes little sense to spend $230 million on a bus station — that prescribes to an outdated hub and spoke system — at Renaissance Square and not have enough left over for the Amtrak station upgrade.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.