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Senator Schumer Joins Calls for Pre-clearance of Rail Passengers in Niagara Falls

Last month, the new Niagara Falls train station got “Schumed.” And that’s a good thing. What is it to get “Schumed?” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz put it this way in his recent book, Beyond the Xs and Os, about the Bills lease deal: “Among political circles, Senator Schumer is known for his press conferences in which he comes into a community to speak on a particular issue regardless of what might otherwise be happening that day… . Often, the senator will fly in, hold a press conference on a subject…, and then fly away, stealing any media coverage… . In political circles, these press conferences have come to be known as being “Schumed.”

Lest you think that’s a dig at the senator, not so – it’s from a chapter in the book titled, “Thank God We Got Schumed!” The chapter recounts how the senator used his leverage at a critical time in negotiations on the Bills lease to break a logjam and get things moving. It’s a signature move for the senator, someone I first met over two decades ago and have watched use his ever-growing political power and clout more strategically and effectively than any elected official I’ve ever known. (Disclosure: I was doing some work for the Democratic Party when Schumer opened his Rochester senate office, and I volunteered to keep the office open while party officials toured him around town. Which means I get to tell people at cocktail parties that I was the first one to run Senator Schumer’s Rochester office.) And it’s just what we needed to try to break the logjam on pre-clearance for rail passengers at the border, the subject of the senator’s press conference.

At the Niagara Falls, New York train station, which still has that new-train-station smell, the senator called on Canadian authorities just across the border to begin pre-clearance of Canada-bound rail passengers. Pre-clearance would allow passengers to pass through customs before they board the train and enter Canada – a significant improvement and convenience for anyone whose rail trip takes them across the border. Today, passengers must board a train in Niagara Falls, New York, then disembark in a less secure space in Niagara Falls, Ontario – just a few hundred yards away – for a customs check, before re-boarding the train and continuing on.

William de Leftwich Dodge mural, Frontiers Unfettered by Any Frowning Fortress, at Buffalo City Hall. Image: Buffalo Architecture and History

This is not only a cumbersome process, but one that seems ridiculous on what we’ve long called, with pride, “the world’s longest undefended border” where we have long enjoyed, as famous muralist William de Leftwich Dodge, put it, “Frontiers Unfettered by Any Frowning Fortress.” It’s astonishing given that the last cannon shots were traded across our border over two centuries ago, while in Europe train passengers don’t even know they’ve crossed a border between nations that just 75 years ago were committing atrocities against each other.

And it’s especially frustrating as repeated efforts to improve this situation through pre-clearance have been made for years. The Niagara Falls train station was specifically planned around pre-clearance, with spaces designed specifically for the needs of customs officials. A key proponent, Patrick Whalen, Director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute, has spent years working this issue at various levels on both sides of the border. It happens to dovetail with another effort, to establish commuter rail between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, to connect with the recently extended GO Train service in Ontario. As of last year, GO Trains now operate daily service to Niagara Falls, Ontario year round.

GO Train. Image: Buffalo Rising

Where does that service currently terminate? At the Niagara Falls, Ontario station, almost within shouting distance of our station where Senator Schumer paid his visit last month.

A tiger in our tank

Schumer entering the Niagara Falls train station

Just what did Senator Schumer say? Here’s an excerpt:

From its earliest stages of development, the Niagara Falls International Railway Station was designed to contain a state-of-the-art pre-clearance facility, allowing Western New Yorkers and all Americans to travel to and from Canada’s Toronto Metro Area with east, boosting commerce between our regions and both of our economies. Today, even though we were successful in our years-long effort to transform the Niagara Falls Customhouse into a vibrant, multi-modal transportation hub, that pre-clearance facility remains under-utilized for no good reason whatsoever. With legislation passed by both the American and Canadian governments in preparation for pre-clearance, and the official pre-clearance expansion agreement signed last year, it’s high time to get this economy-jolting system up and running. That’s why today, I’m urging our neighbors to the north to lay down the tracks for pre-clearance and get it moving full steam ahead.

More about the pre-clearance agreement that went into effect last summer can be found here.

Senator Schumer has a reputation for using power smartly, more so than any elected official you’re likely to see. Some have compared him to a governor with his insistence on visiting every county in the state every year for the two decades he has been in office. Although senators are elected to six-year terms, the way he barnstorms the state Schumer seems to treat each year as an election year. That’s given him a reputation for being accessible and always trying to get things done. It also makes him one of the two most powerful elected officials in the state. The other, of course, is the governor, an office on which many once assumed he had his eye. That seems unlikely now given his advance to the rank of top Democrat in the senate. Still, an observation from over a decade and a half ago in what remains one of the most insightful pieces written about the senator could have been written about his recent press conference, “Chuck always struck me as more of a natural fit for governor than for senator,” says [E. J. McMahon, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute]. “He’d actually like flying to Buffalo in February.”

Chuck always struck me as more of a natural fit for governor than for senator. He’d actually like flying to Buffalo in February.

Two decades of that sustained drive have not only advanced Schumer to the top ranks of the senate, but made him one of the top fundraisers in American politics. But he hasn’t done it alone – he has a reputation for hiring staff who mirror his energy, aggressiveness, and competence. Look no further than Preet Bharara, who used to work for the senator. In a Buffalo News article about Bharara, former congressman John LaFalce said, “Chuck Schumer is a tiger, and he hires tigers.” And if you visit Schumer’s local office, as I did several years ago for a conference call on lead poisoning, you find an atmosphere of quiet intensity that I can attest is far from the norm for political offices. Jordan Nicholson, the senator’s regional director, sets the tone.

In the last month, of course, Senator Schumer has had to draw on that power, and over two decades of experience in the senate to deal with unprecedented events in Washington. That he also draws on a sense of history was shown after last month’s press conference as he took a tour of the Underground Railroad Heritage Center on the ground level of the former customs house that is now part of the train station. It’s an outstanding museum with first-class exhibits, as befits a tourism city and befitting its location at one of the most significant of all Underground Railroad sites: Suspension Bridge, where many made the final crossing to freedom in Canada – some in the company of Harriet Tubman.

On the tour, Schumer told the museum staff about his latest read, a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow that counters the picture of his presidential administration as corrupt and casts him as something of a prototype for the modern presidency. At least, as we’ve known the office prior to its current occupant, who accomplishes whatever Chernow didn’t in rehabilitating Grant – simply by comparison.

Tour of the Underground Railroad Heritage Center

While it is unlikely that any future Chernow will be able – or even inclined – to rehabilitate the reputation of our current president, chroniclers of recent events will certainly treat Senator Schumer and his role favorably. They may even note that just before doing his duty in a historic Washington showdown, he was doing his duty on a distant border of his state, bringing attention to a matter small in comparison yet nonetheless vital to his constituents. Because that is his nature, and because he also knows, as a student of history, that Americans of all generations come to honor those who have done their duty for the common good just as they come to revile those who have done the opposite.

Setting the snowball rolling

Consider the above my attempt to answer the obvious question of why, on the eve of political Ragnarök, Senator Schumer would be visiting the Marches. I think, in true Schumer fashion, he and his staff grasp the true importance and far-reaching implications of getting pre-clearance going as few others seem to. Because this is about far more than just where the customs process takes place and about far more than a matter of convenience. Pre-clearance would get the ball rolling on some projects of enormous importance not only to tourism, but also to strengthening regional bonds in western New York and our bi-national “Golden Horseshoe.” Look no further than the last full paragraph of Schumer’s simultaneously released letter (in full at the end of the article) to Canada’s Minister of Public Safety William Blair: “Establishing a pre-clearance partnership is the first step in increasing passenger traffic at the Niagara Falls Train Station and establishing an even more robust link between Western New York and Southern Ontario via commuter rail.”

Bruce Becker, VP of Operations for the National Association of Railroad Passengers and former President of the Empire State Passengers Association; Tom DeSantis, Acting Director, Department of Planning and Economic Development and Senior Planner for the City of Niagara Falls; and Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino

The presence at the press conference of Niagara Frontier leaders from the border with Canada to the border with Pennsylvania showed that many local leaders grasp the importance and implications of pre-clearance, as well. But none more so than leaders in Niagara Falls. The city’s new mayor, Robert Restaino, spoke at the press conference. And according to Director of Planning and Economic Development Tom DeSantis,

While ‘pre-clearance’ is a little known or understood dry topic for most, it is critically important to WNY and especially to Niagara Falls in that it is the best way to link together the economy of southern Ontario to that of western New York’s.

Tourism is the fastest growing part of this city’s economy. It represents the state’s highest economic development priority here. If you need an example of ways to use such a connection follow this URL and see how the Niagara Parks Commission (ON) is already using its rail connection to Toronto.

As you know, I have maintained that strengthening the passenger rail connection will go a long way in strengthening the economic ties that already exist between us, and stronger connections and easier travel options will also create new economic opportunities in sectors of the economy other than just tourism.

Patrick Whalen, Director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute, and Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino

This strong grasp that Niagara Falls leaders have on the importance of this rail connections is no doubt because they can see it across the border, tantalizingly just out of reach. It could make their city, essentially, part of the ever-growing Greater Toronto Area. Pat Whalen, as head of a Falls-based tourism think-tank and with a previous life in logistics, gets this more than most. But what he also gets is the importance of extending that commuter rail connection to Buffalo. Why? Not just because a reliable, quick connection between the two cities will make it easier for Buffalonians to take impulse trips to a nearby Wonder of the World, and for Niagara Falls residents to access jobs in Buffalo. But it would also set the stage for so many other things.

Like what? For one, because commuter rail would connect to downtown Buffalo on the western part of the Belt Line, it could also provide rail transit to Buffalo’s west side. Before arriving downtown, it could make stops at (say) Black Rock near Buffalo State, Ferry Street by Rich Products headquarters (see illustration below), and the lower West Side near D’Youville College. Re-activating the western Belt Line for rail transit would be a boon for several Buffalo neighborhoods and spark new transit-oriented development there.

Concept for a simple commuter rail station at Ferry Street adjacent to Rich Products headquarters with a terrace deck on top overlooking the river

And if the commuter rail, instead of terminating downtown, was continued just a mile further, it would add rail transit to the Larkin District, as well. That would be huge, as a rail transit station at Seneca Street and the Belt Line could have potentially three million square feet of real estate – current and future – touching a quarter-mile walk-shed (the standard rail transit walk-shed is a half mile). Extending rail transit to Larkinville would also be a good first step toward future rail transit to the Central Terminal and beyond to the airport, but the most immediate impact would be to allow Larkinville to outgrow its dependence on surface parking.

Quarter-mile walk-shed of a potential Larkin District rail transit station (centered at Seneca Street and the Belt Line)

Why is that? As I discussed recently in this piece on high-speed rail, rail transit is essential for promoting denser development. It would also increase options for satellite parking for downtown workers and downtown events. If the new Bills lease, coming up for negotiation, includes a new stadium in the “Crossroads” area of downtown, then rail will be an essential part of getting over 70,000 people in and out on game days without creating gridlock.

Senator Schumer with his Regional Director Jordan Nicholson (left) and Robert O. Dingman of the NY&LE Railroad (in hat) and City of Jamestown Development Director Crystal Surdyk (right)

But there’s even more to it. Without fanfare, communities from Niagara Falls to Jamestown have been working to create a tourist rail corridor with Buffalo as a principal hub along the way. Formally known as the Western New York Rail Corridor Project (WNYRCP), goals include linking Canalside in Buffalo to the Southern Tier for excursion rail and also providing alternative access to Canalside for events. The New York and Lake Erie Railroad (NY&LE), which operates the corridor south of Gowanda, is central to the effort. Its owner, Robert O. Dingman, was at the press conference along with a Jamestown contingent including Crystal Surdyk, that city’s new director of development.

Jamestown recently rehabbed its large passenger station and would like nothing more than for people to get on and off trains there again. In my view, that great effort could have even more impact by adding a “rails with trails” component to get the ball rolling on a trail between Buffalo and the southern tier. Another thing it could get the ball rolling on: it could get local tourism promoters to begin thinking about a similar project on the Falls Branch Railroad that links Niagara Falls and the western Erie Canal communities – including Lockport – as far east as downtown Rochester.

Jamestown Train Station. Image: City of Jamestown Urban Design Plan 2.0

The above are all examples of things that pre-clearance could help set into motion that would be extremely important to communities in western New York. That leverage is why pre-clearance takes on such an out-sized importance. In actual process it represents a seemingly small change – shifting a process a few hundred feet away to a facility that was custom-designed to house it, following a policy that has already been agreed to and set – that could set in motion many big changes. That explains the high level of interest, and why one of the most powerful federal elected officials took time away from dealing with an existential federal crisis to be with us last month.

The big picture. And the even bigger picture.

Whirlpool bridges

Given all of the above, making a business case for pre-clearance would seem to be a slam dunk. It will cost Canadian customs essentially nothing, and at the same time get the ball rolling on a huge, ever-growing collection of benefits that would build on each other like a snowball rolling downhill turning into an avalanche. Yet the most immediately obvious of those benefits would accrue on our side of the border. What do the Canadians get? The simplest answer I have is all these benefits have something in common, on both sides of the border: they all help build the mega-region often called the Golden Horseshoe. That mega-region, if fully realized, would be one of the largest in North America, with ten million inhabitants. It would be the largest mega-region involving New York outside of downstate.

In New York, regionalism has become an essential part of economic development thinking. The Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) process is based on a regional cooperation approach that Andrew Cuomo and Bruce Katz developed when they were at HUD. Cuomo, of course, is now our governor and Katz, now at the Brookings Institution, has helped drive that organization’s advocacy for regionalism. Another of those advocates at Brookings, Amy Liu, spoke about a regional approach to economic development in Buffalo just as the REDC process was kicking off statewide, as I wrote for Artvoice at the time. She also wrote a good primer for CityLab making the case for regionalism.

Whirlpool bridges

With the REDC process, we’ve been doing regionalism in earnest for a decade now. It’s becoming ingrained in the way western New Yorkers see ourselves and in the way our leaders do business. The Western New York Rail Corridor Project (WNYRCP) can further that by strengthening our Niagara Frontier regional bonds north to south. And commuter rail connecting communities in the Golden Horseshoe from Buffalo to Toronto will supplement the current weak inter-city passenger rail service in tying together the mega-region.

Prospects

Given that so much hangs on pre-clearance, what are the prospects for it in the wake of Senator Schumer’s press conference? No one seems to be opposing it, at least overtly. In response to the press conference, not one voice was raised against it from any entity on either side of the border. On the other hand, no one promised to implement it, let alone provided a date certain.

The Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, a bi-national authority, made a “Goldilocks” statement – neither hot nor cold – about pre-clearance through their General Manager Kenneth Bieger:

The Niagara Falls Bridge Commission is extremely appreciative of the longstanding focus and attention that Senator Schumer has dedicated to both the Canadian-American travel and trade relationship and issues involving the efficiency of operations at the Buffalo-Niagara region’s four international border crossings. Our organization remains open to any and all approaches to enhancing Port of Entry facilities, technologies, and conveyance processes, and will continue to work seamlessly with Senator Schumer and our partners at U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Canada Border Services Agency in evaluating the applicability to the pre-clearance concept.

In other words, they’re not saying “no,” even if it may not be at the top of their advocacy agenda. Their legal counsel, Adam Perry of Hodgson Russ, did seem to be all about it, however, circulating and chatting before and after the press conference, and taking a selfie with Senator Schumer. Hopefully, that’s a good sign of their interest in this.

Attorney Adam Perry (follow arrow)

And while shifting Trump-era border policies have caused the term “pre-clearance” to be a red-flag for some in Canada, that is only for the case of U.S. customs officials operating on Canadian soil. As for what may be holding things up in this case, which would involve Canadians operating on U.S. soil, Schumer attributed it to “bureaucratic inertia.” Which pretty much jibes with what I’ve been hearing about this issue for some time. It’s a classic bureaucratic strategy with anything new and different to continue to attend meetings, raise objections, slow-walk things, until someone at the right level tells you to get it done. Then, things can move forward very quickly. It makes me wonder if some kind of short-term pilot couldn’t be attempted for a week or even just a day to see what issues might crop up and also to gauge passenger reaction.

And perhaps Canadian inertia on pre-clearance is related to the volatile state of their national neighbor under our current federal administration that, having survived an impeachment, is going to be around for at least the rest of the year and shows every sign of being more volatile and capricious than ever before. Just what can happen in such a situation became clear this month when the administration abruptly and arbitrarily froze the “Trusted Traveler” program for New Yorkers.

Train inspection at Niagara Falls, NY station

Yet what looks initially like a setback actually shows the beauty of regionalism. While federal and state administrations tussle over a border issue like it’s just another political football, regional leaders know the stakes, and they have been raising their voices across the region as far away as the southern tier counties.

Even the conservative-leaning Buffalo-Niagara Partnership has pushed back strongly against the federal administration’s attempt to make border crossing a pawn in a political sumo match. Their letter (PDF here with an excerpt below) is based entirely on a regionalist argument: maintaining the economic viability of not only the Buffalo-Niagara region but also the bi-national region, as well. It is just this kind of argument and clout and unified voice that will be essential to get things moving on on pre-clearance.

Excerpt from the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership’s February 10 letter about the Trusted Traveler program (highlighting mine)

And speaking of letters, below is the full text of Senator Schumer’s pre-clearance letter.

Let the “Schuming” continue!

1/13/2020

The Hon. William Blair, PC, COM, MP

Minister of Public Safety

House of Commons

Ottawa, Canada K1A 0A6

Dear Minister Blair,

I write on behalf of the new, state-of-the-art train station in Niagara Falls, New York. It has been my privilege over the last decade to secure funding for this new station and help see this project through from the groundbreaking to the ribbon-cutting. This station was designed to accommodate pre-clearance for passengers entering both the United States and Canada. However, despite the available infrastructure and a willingness on the part of local officials and United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP), pre-clearance is still not available for rail passengers entering Canada.

On the heels the completion of renovations at the Whirlpool Bridge, the time could not be better for Canadian customs officials to undertake pre-clearance at the Niagara Falls Train Station on the American side. The pre-clearance expansion agreement that was agreed to by our two countries last summer is a good first step in easing the burden of crossing the border while still maintaining the integrity of all necessary safety protocols. The ability to pass through customs before they board the train and enter Canada would be a remarkable convenience for anyone seeking to travel between our two countries by rail. Instead, passengers must board a train in Niagara Falls, New York, then disembark in a less secure space in Ontario for a customs check, before re-boarding the train and continuing on. This cumbersome process can be avoided, all while affording the Canadian customs officials the luxury and convenience of a brand new, pre-clearance-ready space that meets all modern IT and spatial requirements.

Establishing a pre-clearance partnership is the first step in increasing passenger traffic at the Niagara Falls Train Station and establishing an even more robust link between Western New York and Southern Ontario via commuter rail. I greatly encourage the Canadian government to take this first step, and am willing to help in any way possible.

Please feel free to contact me or a member of my staff if you have any questions or if I can be of further assistance.

Sincerely,

Charles E. Schumer

United States Senator

Written by RaChaCha

RaChaCha

RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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