NIAGARA FALLS – The city’s long-awaited $25.6 million train station project appears ready to chug ahead, though it will be scaled back slightly.
Delays and other circumstances have triggered cost increases that have caused planners to change materials and how some of the work will be done.
Seen by supporters as a potentially regenerative force for the city’s North End, the Niagara Falls International Railway Station and Intermodal Transportation Center faces its next juncture tonight, when the City Council will consider a $350,000 contract extension for the architectural/engineering firm designing the project.
The station site, a former U.S. Customs House on Whirlpool Street near the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, will provide Amtrak service that is about three-quarters of a mile closer to the downtown tourist district than the existing facility near Hyde Park Boulevard and Lockport Road.
It also will include an Underground Railroad interpretive center, aimed at boosting tourism efforts around the city’s history with the Underground Railroad.
Last fall, the three bids submitted for the project came in over budget and no contract for the work was awarded. Since then, the city and representatives of Wendel Companies have been reducing the scope of the work without making what would be considered any major design changes.
Here is some of what has been changed:
• A canopy over the passenger platform will be shortened and made of different materials.
• The clock tower on the building will be shortened, the foundation design was altered and some areas will have a chain link fence, as opposed to wrought iron.
• The Department of Homeland Security will lose its space on the first floor, moving completely to the building’s second floor; and plans for a retaining wall have been adjusted.
Approval by the Council will allow the bid specifications to be released Wednesday, and in the best case scenario the contract would be awarded before April, said Thomas J. DeSantis, the city’s senior planner.
Construction is expected to take between 18 months and two years, DeSantis said.
Part of the reason for the higher bids was delays in approvals from some federal agencies, said Mayor Paul A. Dyster.
The project has been “more or less ready to go” for about three years, Dyster said, but as time passed, inflation led to cost increases. The estimated costs for the project were developed in 2011, he said.
The project’s aesthetics remain important because of its value to the North End, Dyster said, but some changes had to be made “to make certain that we’re able to award the contract” within the project’s budget.
Issues related to contaminated soil on the site have also held up the project.
Wendel, consultant for the city on the project since July 2005, recommended in late September that the city not award the contracts. That was in part because responses in the initial bid included contamination cleanup charges higher than industry standards, said Susan K. Sherwood, project manager for Wendel.
Since then, project planners have done more extensive soil testing to try to accurately characterize the on-site contamination, which includes radiologically contaminated fill material.
By doing more testing themselves, the engineers were able to lessen the uncertainty about what materials were in the ground, Dyster said.
There are also pockets of petroleum contamination, Sherwood said, and possibly some heavy metals. “Nothing of any major significance,” she said.
Councilman Andrew P. Touma said representatives of Wendel should have foreseen that contractors would be apprehensive about soil contamination at the site.Touma, who said the city is in a tough position because the overall project is more than halfway done, said he believes that Wendel “didn’t do their homework” on the portion of the bid involving the contaminated materials.
“When they created this RFP,” or request for proposals, Touma said, “they should have anticipated, as far as I’m concerned, that the contractors would be scared about what they would find in the soil.”
He said he hopes to discuss the matter further at tonight’s meeting, which a Wendel representative is set to attend.
Eighty-five percent of the cost of the contract extension with Wendel is reimbursable by the state and federal governments.
The construction of the station is the final phase of the three-phase project. The $2.7 million first phase involved stabilization work on the former Customs House, where the station will be located along with an Underground Railroad museum. The $6 million second phase of work upgraded the railroad bridge over Main Street.
The budget for the final phase is $26.5 million. About 87 percent of all the costs are being picked up by the federal and state governments.
A ceremonial groundbreaking for the Amtrak station was held in August 2010. The former Customs House, built in 1863, was opened to public view following renovations in April 2012, though work still continues on its exhibits.
Councilwoman Kristen M. Grandinetti said she plans to support the measure on the Council’s agenda. She said that she supports the project “100 percent” and that she trusts Wendel’s judgment
Council Chairman Charles A. Walker said that although there are a lot of questions about the project, he plans to support the measure on the Council’s agenda.