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The sprawling Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus taking shape at the north end of downtown is expected to employ about 17,500 people in five years – but without anywhere near 17,500 parking spots.

That’s why political leaders, Medical Campus officials, city planners, the Buffalo Sabres and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority are all seeking ways to exploit an existing and underutilized Metro Rail system they believe can help solve the parking dilemma at the new Medical Campus.

The officials are beginning to think about bricks, mortar – and new rails. Serious study is under way about extending Metro Rail to a new parking facility just beyond the system’s southern terminus at the NFTA’s Yard and Shops complex in the former DL&W Terminal as a way to shuttle workers northward to the growing Medical Campus.

The idea begins with elevating Metro Rail tracks at the current special events station near First Niagara Center and raising them into a new station on the upper floor of the former Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal’s vast train shed.

Metro Rail would then exit the DL&W and extend over Michigan Avenue about 2,000 feet to the new parking garage and ground floor bus loop that would serve as a commuter hub.

No pots of money have yet been identified for a project that might cost between $100 million and $200 million, and the conversations are only preliminary. but just about everyone involved is looking to Buffalo’s subway system for answers to “growth problems” – something that has been absent from downtown for decades.

“We’ve got a heckuva asset here that we probably don’t deserve, but we’ve got it,” Patrick J. Whalen, chief operating officer of the Medical Campus, said of the rail system. “And it works.”

Whalen and Matthew K. Enstice, president and CEO of the Medical Campus, are among the bullish proponents of an enhanced role for Metro Rail, predicting it will eventually fulfill the economic catalyst role envisioned when the system was proposed more than three decades ago.

Because so many Medical Campus employees will depend on mass transit for a facility deliberately devoid of parking, they say commuters will want to live near subway stations or use transit hubs such as the one under discussion.

But while long-term plans involve development around Metro Rail stations and people moving back into the city, Whalen and Enstice say more immediate efforts like the proposed parking garage must recognize the need for more commuters to easily use Metro Rail. They believe that the private sector sees enough opportunity in the garage to handle its construction and operation but that government money will be needed to build the first expansion of Metro Rail – albeit a short one – in its history.

The Medical Campus’ urban setting and its role in Buffalo’s renaissance as a medical services and research center, Enstice said, make relatively minor enhancements necessary for the subway system. “This thing is the asset we’ve got to utilize,” he said. “It’s the only way we could come up with.”

The NFTA is on board with the concept, though it has taken no solid steps forward. Spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer said Chairman Howard A. Zemsky will discuss the preliminary talks with the authority’s Board of Commissioners today and believes the idea is worthy of serious exploration.

He said moving visitors to Sabres games, the Webster Block development or the Medical Campus is an important goal for the authority.

“What’s the best way to tie that all together?” Hartmayer said, pointing to a “coatless” system that would allow commuters to reach several destinations without venturing outside.

“Wouldn’t that be enticing for people to travel that way?” he added. “That’s why we’re going forward.”

The NFTA is already heavily invested in the Medical Campus through plans to integrate its Allen/Medical Campus Metro Rail station into the ground floor of the new, $350 million University at Buffalo Medical School.

Rep. Brian Higgins is also aware of the need for a renewed purpose for Metro Rail and for the role it can play in development of the Medical Campus and the waterfront.

The Buffalo Democrat said the community has an “obligation” to explore such ideas and that the latest proposal could prove eligible for federal funding. “It’s indisputable that the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is experiencing extraordinary growth,” he said. “From that standpoint, these are the kinds of investments we have to do. We have to think big, because we have no other choice.”

The congressman called Metro Rail “underutilized and a system in search of a purpose.” He said the subway system also could inject new life into waterfront development, while the DL&W proposal goes hand in hand with his new efforts to market the century-old landmark as a public space and recreational boating mecca.

Higgins has proposed that developer Rocco R. Termini tackle the former train shed, which already has passenger platforms in place for Metro Rail, for his next downtown project. Termini, who recently resurrected a dilapidated hotel into the Hotel @ the Lafayette, was unavailable to comment Wednesday. But Higgins said he sees no reason the train station idea cannot be compatible with future DL&W development and that a request for proposals should be issued.

The Sabres also are interested in improving service for the several thousand fans per game who travel to First Niagara Center by rail.

The idea has always been to be “creative” in linking to Canalside and other new waterfront attractions, said Cliff Benson, the Sabres’ chief development officer and president of the new HarborCenter development at the Webster Block. He also said his group envisions 300 to 400 parking spaces at HarborCenter dedicated to Medical Campus commuters, but even those will not fill the demand.

And if logistics can be worked out, Benson said, the team is intrigued by a possible bridge linking the arena with the DL&W.

“I think the whole idea of getting better use of the rail system makes sense,” he said. “If we could create a whole entertainment and hospitality area down there at Canalside, it would be just a huge step forward for Buffalo, and using the rail makes all the sense in the world.”

Whalen and Enstice point out that money has to be spent one way or another to accommodate the thousands of commuters heading toward the Medical Campus from all directions. The complex has already built a $42 million parking garage that is the biggest in Buffalo. The area can handle about 2,000 vehicles now, and plans call for adding 500 to 700 new spaces.

“We have parking and in five years will have enough parking for our patients and visitors,” Whalen said. “What we’re talking about is employees.”

Even if the Medical Campus committed to providing parking for all its current and prospective employees, he added, it would be facing a $100 million bill. “If we have $100 million to spend, it should be put into the hospital, not parking,” he said.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com