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Buffalo Belt Line

(Rich Sampson submitted a piece published by Buffalo Rising in 2012 on prospects for commuter or regional rail routes in Western New YorkIt provides useful background on how new rail transit options could be deployed quickly and relatively affordably.)

Author: Rich Sampson

There’s a fantastic spirit among new urbanists that the best ideas aren’t always those that are unique, but those that are copied, modeled and adapted from one community to another. Case in point, the nighttime lighting displays on the Connecting Terminal Grain Elevator at Canalside borrow heavily from a similar installation in Ottawa.

Along the same vein, there has been noticeable discussion lately on borrowing many of the concepts in play on Atlanta’s creative BeltLine project. Buffalo Rising boosted the concept earlier this fall.

And, indeed, there is much worthy of emulation there: the effort strings together a collection of unused (or under-used) rail corridors that encircle the region’s core to form park spaces, bicycle and pedestrian paths, redevelopment opportunities and future transit corridors.

Surely, Western New York with its even larger network of old rail corridors – once the nation’s second-largest after Chicago’s – could get to work on its own version, right? More to the point, Buffalo already features a rail route called the Belt Line and is perhaps the most well-designed loop line of its kind in the country. Can’t we take advantage of that? The Buffalo Belt Line Facebook page champions such a movement.

Well, setting aside the fact that the Atlanta BeltLine initiative has never been fully-funded by governments or taxpayers and its transit portions are, as of yet, just plans, the problem with Buffalo’s parallel loop line is it’s still an active railroad. Fully-owned by CSX Transportation, the Belt Line – completed by the New York Central Railroad in 1882 – is heavily-used for freight traffic from the International Railway Bridge in Black Rock through North Buffalo and the East Side to the connection with its main line near Central Terminal. In addition, Amtrak operates three daily Empire Service and Maple Leaf roundtrip trains from Niagara Falls through downtown Buffalo and to points east over the route.

Simply put, there’s little opportunity to utilize this asset for anything other than moving trains. Even running additional passenger trains on Amtrak’s current stretch from Niagara Falls through Buffalo would require negotiation and likely public investment in track upgrades with CSX, and similar service on its freight route would have trouble gaining traction with the private company. Admittedly, though, a frequent, bi-directional rail transit service on the full Belt Line route would likely be a tremendous mobility resource for the city.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Accordingly, a network of parks, trails and transit must find rights-of-way elsewhere. It’s here where Western New York’s rich rail legacy presents myriad opportunities, but ones that require political will, community support and specific investment streams to become realities. The attached NYSDOT map of active (red) and abandoned (gray) rail corridors in Western New York provides the lay of the land, along with this Google Map.

Already, there is great momentum on the trails side with the recent completion of the Tonawanda Rails-to-Trails project on the formerErie-Lackawanna / International Railway Company right-of-way from the LaSalle Metro Rail station to the city of Tonawanda, a route owned by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) for some time. Even better is due to the wide right-of-way from the two companies’ multiple sets of tracks, the corridor could still add future Metro Rail service without disrupting the trail, although creative solutions would be required at crossings of major roadways such as Sheridan Drive and Kenmore Avenue.

The same corridor continues southwest from the LaSalle station through the East Side and all the way to Sloan. However, some encroachment has been allowed as the result of the home construction on William Price Pkwy on the east side of Main Street near LaSalle and the city of Buffalo’s 1990s construction of William L. Gaiter Pkwy between Kensington and East Delevan avenues. This would be the next logical extension of the Tonawandas trail and should accommodate both trail and transit space with careful planning and engineering work. A separate abandoned right-of-way branches off this corridor at East Delevan, heading due south past Genesee Street and Walden Avenue.

Connected with this northwest-southeast oriented route is another former Erie-Lackawanna right-of-way through North Buffalo, again owned by the NFTA and intended – at least at its purchase decades ago – for future Metro Rail expansion. Just northwest of LaSalle, this line heads due east on elevated embankments between St. Lawrence Avenue and Taunton Place all the way past Military Road, where it connected with the still-active CSX Niagara Branch. Development has also been allowed to mar this corridor, first with home construction on Rachel Vincent Way off of Colvin Avenue and substantial commercial activity between Delaware and Elmwood. Should these obstacles be overcome, the property resembles the Tonawandas route, featuring plenty of room for both trails and transit.

When combined with the existing River Walk from Tonawanda to Black Rock and other on-street lanes, the outlines of a outer belt line loop emerges. Other former rights-of-way could extend the network through north and central Amherst to reach Clarence and Akron heading east on the abandoned New York Central Peanut Line route and to Cheektowaga and the airport on the former Lehigh Valley corridor. Other rights-of-way exist throughout the southtowns I didn’t include on the map.

The challenge in making such an ambitious effort a reality is aligning political support, community activism and a source of funding. In order for development to materialize around any of these nodes, zoning requirements must be modernized to expand limits on floor-to-area ratios (FAR), parking space minimums and other aspects to better incentivize trail and transit use when available. Additionally, as a rail transit advocate, I always am careful to note that when using former rail corridors, accommodations should be included to allow for the eventual return of rail service on a given route. Too often, the rails-to-trails mindset excludes the possibility of rails-AND-trails.

Buffalo and Western New York have publicly-owned assets required for network of transit and trails that could rival the Atlanta BeltLine and New York City’s famed High LineIt’s up to community leaders and elected officials to determine if it’s a priority.

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