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Buses to the rescue? 

Central Station, Rochester's $58-million bus station, is "poised to surge ahead," says the Democrat and Chronicle.

                  This Thursday (June 19), the Genesee Transportation Council is expected to approve $30 million for the project, which has been proposed by the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority. Congress has already agreed to provide $12 million, and Authority leaders are seeking $16 million more.

                  Even if they don't get that last $16 mil, it's clear that Central Station is coming to Downtown Rochester. The only question is whether it'll be below grade level (less intrusive on the neighborhood) or at grade (cheaper).

                  RGRTA board chair Bill Nojay insists he's not declaring victory; he wants those last federal dollars. But he's firm: If his board approves his request on Thursday, Central Station will be built, in one form or another.

                  (The $16 million in federal money would come from two transportation funds. Nojay says that votes on the funding could come as early as this fall --- or as late as next spring. RGRTA will wait till those votes are taken before moving ahead, so you won't see ground broken this summer.)

                  Nearly everybody has jumped on the Central Station bandwagon. But I'm still skeptical. Nothing I've seen since Nojay first started touting this thing has changed my mind: not the architect's glitzy sketch, not Nojay's glitzy TV ads, not the polls showing public support. Not even Nojay's pitch to me earlier this week: that Central Station is a terrific anti-sprawl project.

                  Anyone concerned about downtown Rochester is worried about the north side of Main Street, between Clinton and St. Paul. For Central Station, RGRTA would acquire and clear six acres of that block, including the crucial Main-Clinton corner. It would clean it up and build the transit center --- either below ground, or, in the cheaper version, above ground back along Mortimer Street.

                  The remaining property --- and the "air space" above the transit center, if it's built below grade --- could be developed for offices, retail, or housing. People who hate sprawl, says Nojay, should love Central Station. New downtown development is expensive, he says, because of the cost of assembling and clearing the land. Private development at Central Station will be as attractive as, say, out in the country in a cornfield.

Nojay believes that Central Station will not only improve that block of Main Street, but will also attract development nearby. Maybe he's right. Maybe Central Station is the key to downtown Rochester's future. But I'm nervous.

                  First, there's the troublesome little business of operating costs. Building Central Station is only the beginning. RGRTA will have to pay to run the station and to keep it clean, warm, and safe.

                  When he first got interested in the transit center, Nojay said that rent from ancillary facilities in Central Station --- a bank, maybe, a day-care center --- would cover that. Now, he simply says operating costs aren't an issue.

                  "I'm not aware of any public building that makes money," he says. And, he asks, why all this concern about operating costs for Central Station? People don't get concerned about operating costs for a new fire hall, say, or a new public-safety building.

                  But the Transportation Authority can't spend the same dollar twice. If operating costs are high, what'll take the hit? New buses? Bus fares? Service?

                  Hanging over the Transportation Council when it votes Thursday will be a big question about future budgets. And nobody will know the answer until we've spent the money to build Central Station.

                  I also have a few other worries:

                  • Central Station will pull people off Main Street, people who now wait for their buses up and down Main. I said this years ago, when City Hall was infatuated with skyways, and I say it again: You don't create a healthy downtown by getting rid of pedestrians.

                  • Central Station could further ghettoize bus riders. I know, I know: Central Station is being built for bus riders. It will improve things for them: give them a nice, warm, dry place to wait for buses.

                  But it will also segregate them from the rest of downtown. And keeping Central Station attractive --- and safe --- will require consistent investment in operating costs (see above). Otherwise, it could become a seedy, smelly place, and an attraction for loiterers.

                  And I still think there's a better use for the money. I still think there are better ways to get more people interested in mass transit: better bus service to suburban employment, education, and shopping centers, for instance.

                  But maybe I'm wrong, and Bill Nojay's right. I hope so. You and I are going to be spending a whale of a lot of money to build and operate Central Station.

The Dems' dilemma

For politics junkies, there's a nice little drama building behind the scenes with Central Station.

                  Democratic Representative Louise Slaughter has been the major roadblock to RGRTA's getting all the federal money it wants for the project. Republican Representatives Amo Houghton, Jim Walsh, and Thomas Reynolds are in favor of the funding, but Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton have deferred to Slaughter.

                  But now Nojay and RGRTA may have the Democrats in a vise. The Democrats in City Hall haven't been overly enthusiastic about Central Station, but they haven't opposed it either, and recently they've seemed to warm up to the project. Like everybody else, they want something to happen at Main and Clinton.

                  They also want Central Station built below grade. Nojay, who says he doesn't care whether it's below grade or at grade level, says the below-grade option will cost about $16 million extra. That happens to be the amount of additional federal funding he wants.

                  If that money doesn't come through, it won't stop the project. We'll just get the version City Hall doesn't want. So if City Hall wants the station tucked below grade, apparently it'll have to convince Schumer and Clinton to help get the extra money.

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