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NIAGARA FALLS - Amtrak's passenger railroad terminal in the city is on track for a major new look when the city's Intermodal Transportation Center opens to the public - possibly in 2014.
The Federal Railroad Administration has unlocked a $16.5 million grant to finish the last phase of construction of a regional transportation gateway near the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge that will serve trains, buses, tour vehicles, taxis and pedestrians.
Work involves rehabilitating the old U.S. Customs House, built in 1863 on Whirlpool Street, and building an addition to house a modern passenger station with high-level boarding platforms so riders can step directly on and off of railroad coaches without having to go up or down any stairs at trackside.
The improvements not only will make it easier for passengers to enter and leave their coaches, but also will make it easier to carry their luggage aboard and may speed up the boarding and deboarding process as part of the railroad's overall effort to reduce travel time on its Empire Corridor Service route across New York State.
When the building is ready, Amtrak will move there from its out-of-the-way location on 27th Street, near Hyde Park Boulevard and Lockport Street.
The current station is in a former freight house built in 1959 by the old Lehigh Valley Railroad, now part of the CSX transportation system. It is at the edge of a CSX freight yard, remote from downtown Niagara Falls and Niagara Falls State Park and with few nearby amenities for visitors.
The new location is one block from Main Street in the city's North End and is a short ride from the American falls, Niagara Falls State Park, downtown hotels and the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel - all of them major tourist attractions.
The federal grant was announced Thursday by U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, and Mayor Paul A. Dyster.
"This funding will pave the way for a state-of-the-art international rail station in Niagara Falls," Schumer said. "The core of this area's economy is tourism, and this station will bolster our strongest job-creating industry.
"Over two decades ago this community set its mind to turning the old Customs House into a transportation center and a hub of commerce; with today's funding announcement this dream will become a reality."
Dyster said the project "not only will create hundreds of jobs from the day construction starts, it has the potential to help lift the regional tourism economy from Toronto to Buffalo to Rochester and beyond."
Schumer urged the Federal Railroad Administration in July to clear away any "procedural hurdles that stand in the way of this important project, and its goal to complete the project by 2014."
The rehabilitated Customs House will accommodate an Underground Railroad Interpretive Center that will include historic exhibits describing Niagara's role in helping slaves to escape from the South to find freedom in Canada.
The building also will house local facilities for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Services and will be an inspection station for passengers crossing the international border between the U.S. and Canada. It is at the U.S. end of the two-level Whirlpool Rapids Bridge across the Niagara River gorge. Trains use the upper level, while motor vehicles and pedestrians use the lower level.
The Niagara Falls station serves three daily Amtrak trains to and from New York City via Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, and one daily round trip to and from Toronto.

email: rbaldwin@buffnews.com