Amtrak balks at leasing N.Y. station

Rail carrier considers Rensselaer building too expensive

August 19, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

RENSSELAER, N.Y. - On a stifling afternoon a few days ago, dozens of Amtrak riders waited in a cramped rail station without air conditioning or a snack bar. Next door, the air conditioning breezed through a new four-story brick-and-glass station that had yet to serve a passenger.

The old station was to have been closed by now. But after $53 million and three years of construction, its replacement remains dormant because Amtrak has never signed a lease and, struggling financially, considers the rent beyond its means.

"Amtrak never went to the state and said, `Please build us this station.' This was something the state wanted to do," said Cecilia Cummings, a spokeswoman for the railroad. "We'll move in, but under terms that are not onerous to us."

With Amtrak's design input but with state and federal money, the Capital District Transportation Authority built a new railroad complex to serve the Albany area, believing in "good faith" that it had a deal, according to the authority's executive director, Dennis J. Fitzgerald. But that deal was never put in writing.

"That is correct," Fitzgerald said. "Hindsight is 20-20. But we did understand they would occupy the space, how much space they'd use and there would be a fair agreement in the end."

The two sides are negotiating, but neither side will venture to guess when a settlement might be reached. They also will not discuss their original understanding.

So for now the passengers continue to use the old station, which Amtrak owns, hauling their luggage from the platform up a few steps onto the trains. Next door, the unused platform is at the same level as the train doors. The transportation authority has stopped making announcements about a grand opening.

"It's becoming a joke," said Mark Pratt, mayor of this city of 8,000. "Everyone wants to know when it will open."

The new complex, which includes a 67,000-square-foot station, a 550-space parking garage, a bridge to provide easier road access, and track upgrades, was financed largely with $26 million from Washington and $24 million from the state.

With more than 600,000 passengers passing through it each year, the Rensselaer station ranks 10th nationally among Amtrak's stops, and the goal of the new complex was to help Amtrak cater to one of its busiest corridors and spur the capital region's economy.

Instead, the result is equal parts embarrassment and awe over how so ample a public project could be built without such a fundamental contract.

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