Niagara Falls and New York State Parks are regional assets as well as a cash cow to New York State. Despite this fact, two influential politicians — with the ability to deliver — have not lived up to their billings as patron saints of the Falls.
State Senator Tim Kennedy — the region’s only member of that chamber’s governing Democrat caucus — has yet to significantly deliver on any transportation infrastructure to Niagara Falls. The Democrat from South Buffalo was named Chairman of the powerful Senate Transportation Committee, and at a time when the Governor is expected to seek financing for more than $50 billion in long-term capital projects for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
And Brian Higgins, the long-tenured congressman currently sits on the Ways and Means and Budget committees, has delivered project after project for South Buffalo’s waterfront, where he and Kennedy live, but has delivered very little federal investment for Niagara Falls. Making matters even more curious is the fact that Higgins is ‘extremely close’ to the powerful congresswoman from Westchester County, Nita Lowey, who is the Chairperson of the House Appropriations Committee.
One needs to look no further than the congressman’s own website as he touts the slew of pork that he’s cooked up for Buffalo — for waterfront parks, Furhman Boulevard, the Peace Bridge, Canalside, Ohio Street, with plans for an Outer Harbor Bridge, a vast new Haborfront park space, and innovative new trail systems.
Niagara Falls residents feel left out — or even abandoned by their Congressman because they’ve yet to see Higgins propose any transformational project on the scale of Canalside.
Turning around the economic fortunes of Niagara Falls, the experts argue, requires significant, sustained, and highly-targeted capital investment — particularly in public spaces, transportation infrastructure, and commercial development. In doing so, Niagara Falls will emerge as a regional growth driver while improving our quality of life for visitors and residents alike.
But the fiscal realities of the City of Niagara Falls — with its structural operating deficit of $15 million to $20 million — demand that the State and Federal government provide much-needed aid to a community that spends greatly just to welcome so many from around the world.
There have been a number of creative discussions by the host community to share in these cash flows with New York State — whether in parking fees or attractions, thereby shifting the tax burden from property taxpayers to those who pay tourist user fees.
That no aid has come at the federal level to address the cascades of poverty and economic stagnation in Niagara Falls raises profound questions about the City’s representation. Is Niagara an afterthought to the political powerbrokers in Buffalo, who have their own pipeline of waterfront development and transportation projects?
For the boys from South Buffalo, the pressure to deliver for Western New York will be on during next January’s legislative session. Here are five things that Kennedy and Higgins are capable of delivering for Niagara Falls this year.
It’s on you — the voter — to make sure they get it done.
1: Complete the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway ($20m to $300m)
The Robert Moses of Parkway in Niagara Falls occupies hundreds of acres of land along four miles of the Niagara River’s edge. Urban planners and local residents have long called for the roadway to be shut down and for traffic to be redirected through the tourism district to create new economic development opportunities.
Repurposing the existing lane miles into a bikeway and pedestrian promenade would have only nominal costs and can be executed in well under a year. But many local urban design advocates want the vast riverfront space to become one of the most beautifully designed public parks in the world — complete with botanical gardens, wooded trails, observation bluffs, and fishing piers, among an imaginative slew of other amenities.
Depending on public aspirations, the price range for that project could be as little as $20 million (an expense comprised mostly of road improvements that would be required of Buffalo Avenue) to more than $300 million, depending on the quality of the waterfront park space that is constructed in the roadway’s place.
The Town of Grand Island proved that removing a divided limited-access highway from the waterfront need not be capital intensive. Indeed, a repainting of laneways, new signage, and creative hardscaping was all it took to transform the West River Parkway into the West River Bikeway. That project improved waterfront access to hundreds of acres of newly enjoyable public space.
2: Construct a trail system in the Niagara Gorge ($5 million to $50 million)
For several years now, Empire State Development has endorsed the concept of constructing trails inside the Niagara Gorge. USA Niagara Development, the agency charged with reviving the City, even issued an RFP for a year-round trail system in the gorge. But new construction is probably less necessary than a pruning of the trails that exist today, the reconstruction of cliffside stairways, and some minor safety installations.
Some designers have called for more extensive construction, including the installation of elevators deep inside the gorge-wall in order to make the trails more accessible to those with disabilities. Others have called for the construction of a ‘cave-way’ that would allow pedestrians to walk through a tunnel to connect to trails further north, at Whirlpool State Park and Devil’s Hole State Park.
A trail system along the Niagara River could be a transformative recreational attraction that significantly lengthens the average visitor’s stay in the city. Depending on how elaborate, extensive, and accommodating the system, the construction could range greatly.
3: Complete reconstruction of Main Street, complete with historic Trolley ($100m to $300m)
Imagine an entirely reconstructed streetscape from the Rainbow Bridge to the Whirlpool Bridge that redefines Main Street with stunning cobblestone, triple-wide sidewalks, decorative signage, period street fixtures, mature tree canopies, intimate lighting, inviting public spaces, and vibrant storefronts.
Some even call for a turn-of-the-century styled trolley to run the two-mile stretch, which would encourage tourists to explore the city, as they meander from the cataract to the whirlpool. That foot traffic, once it is cultivated, would be transformative for the city’s historic but long-struggling commercial district.
4: Connect Falls to Buffalo with a mass transit option ($1.6 billion to $2 billion)
Depending on passenger capacity, the construction cost of a monorail would run somewhere between $80 million and $100 million per mile, which compares favorably to subways ($400m). The twenty-mile route between downtown Niagara Falls and downtown Buffalo — a route along which former railway rights of way still exist — would cost between $1.6 billion and $2 billion — which is a pretty good deal relative to construction costs for subways in New York City.
Imagine the ariel views of the Niagara River, the gorge, the escarpment, and the lakeshore from a monorail floating from hundreds of feet above. With stops in LaSalle and the Tonawandas, our historic neighborhoods could benefit from visitors who can more easily find their way, and for everyday commuters who must travel daily to Buffalo for work.
5: Fight to extend GO Transit service to Niagara Falls, NY ($30m to $60m)
Convincing Toronto’s public transit authority to extend service across the Niagara River to the new Amtrak station on the American side of the border could take relatively easy convincing. Local political consultants want Governor Andrew Cuomo to offer to purchase a few passenger trains to run on that route, whereas not to impact the frequency of GO Transit service with their existing resources. A typical six-car passenger train costs around $15 million. Four of them would cost $60 million.
Customs and Border Patrol agents already staff the train station for Amtrak service, but a more fulsome federal government-to-government discussion about cross-border transit should most definitely include full staffing of border patrol at all of our region’s ports of entry — especially the vehicular bridges.
Easier cross border transit will be a great outcome for both parties. It would improve transportation access to the Greater Toronto Area for Americans while GO Transit runs its trains at an even fuller capacity. Demand for mass transit access to Toronto has proven insatiable in the booming Niagara Region in recent months, since GO Transit first extended train service to Niagara Falls, ON earlier this year on a season basis. The transit agency has since extended the weekly service year-round.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has pledged to invest heavily in mass transit expansion in Toronto, would likely view the offer favorably. Having two to four new passenger trains to allocate to the route would greatly improve service frequency, and the cost of traveling another 800 ft across the border to service an eager American market would be nominal for the existing Lakeshore West routes.
Many argue that Southern Ontario’s booming population and Toronto’s skyrocketing housing values have made communities like St. Catherines and Niagara Falls bedroom communities for commuters to downtown Toronto. Offering them daily train service would be a no-brainer for any Ontario politician, regardless of his or her political party.
And with the Conservative Party expected to form a government following the federal election to be held on October 21st, the Member of Parliament for Niagara Falls, Rob Nicholson, is expected to be appointed Minister of Public Works and Procurement — which would be a key window of opportunity for the regional cross-border relationship.