Niagara Gazette

March 18, 2013

Falls City Council keeps train station project on the tracks

By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The city council voted unanimously to approve five measures that needed to pass to keep the $44 million Niagara Falls Intermodal Transportation Center project on schedule at Monday’s council meeting.

The resolutions give Mayor Paul Dyster the authority to execute agreements with Amtrak, the New York State Department of Transportation, local trades groups, Wendel Duchscherer engineers and the Canadian Railway Company necessary for the city to assemble a bid package, which will be put out this spring in anticipation of a summer start date for the final phase of the project – construction.

“This is a critical day for this project,” Dyster said. “We’ve put all the items on the agenda that need to be passed before we go out to bid.”

The construction phase is where the benefit for local trades workers comes in. Estimates out of Dyster’s office say the construction of the train station will create 137,000 man hours — about 200 full-time jobs for two years.

About 100 people filled council chambers for the legislative session, many of them union workers and representatives. Most people who spoke on the train station did so in support of the project while a pair of citizens raised concerns about where the city would get the money for its end of the deal.

Also on the agenda was a project labor agreement that would guarantee the use of local workers for portions of the construction detailed within the agreement.

And that means that construction companies that win bids would have to use more than 50 percent local labor, Dyster said.

“That’s a floor,” he said, “not a ceiling.”

The project is largely funded by the state and federal governments. The city won a $16.5 million grant from the federal government in 2010 and a series of other state and federal grants will pay for almost 90 percent of the total cost. The city’s end of the funding for the construction phase will cost an estimated $3.2 million of the $25 million total cost and will be dispersed periodically as the project moves forward.

The train station has become a controversial topic in city hall. The large project has been questioned by members of the city council — specifically Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian, and council members Sam Fruscione and Robert Anderson Jr. — who have argued the city cannot afford to continue funding its end of the project because of looming fiscal issues caused, in a large part, by the continuing lack of casino revenues.

Dyster said none of the agenda items required new spending. The city will not have to obligate any new money until a bid recommendation is made, which will likely happen in July.

“That gives the opportunity for the city’s financial situation to be clarified,” he said.

Of particular concern has been fees paid to Wendel Duchscherer, the engineering company that has acted as the lead consultant on the project. Included in the agenda is a resolution asking council to give Dyster’s office the authority to approve an agreement with the firm for work related to bidding out the construction work.

The company estimates that it will charge the city $170,000 for bidding phase services, according to a document attached to the resolution.

Council members have said in the past the city spends too much money on consultants and included all consulting services as part of a spending freeze passed at the March 4 council meeting.

Choolokian said that he and the other council members who voted for the freeze — Fruscione and Anderson — do not have a problem with the city executing the new contract with Wendel Duchscherer because the city will use part of a $2.5 million pot of money from the NYSDOT to pay the engineers.

Choolokian said if the time comes for the city to pay its part for construction and there is no new funding source for the project identified — either money from a resolution to the disagreement over the casino dispute between the Senecas and the state or some other windfall — he would not approve any plan that involves borrowing, addressing a group of local laborers who were at Monday's 4 p.m. session of the council meeting.

“We will not borrow to pay for this,” Choolokian said.