With passengers bustling around them in the station’s lobby, officials on Tuesday lauded the 10th anniversary of the Albany-Rensselaer Rail Station and announced plans for future improvements.
The modern station built a decade ago by the Capital District Transportation Authority has been a success, they said.
“It is truly a transportation gateway to the Capital Region. That’s what was envisioned by CDTA and our transportation partners,” said CDTA Executive Director Carm Basile.
To help the station handle more people, a fourth track for loading passengers and a related platform extension will be completed by October 2015, officials said. It is being paid for with $35.4 million in federal stimulus funds.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation is moving toward construction of a second track between Albany and Schenectady, at an estimated cost of $91 million. Having the second track in place would eliminate a major bottleneck that causes delays for both passenger and freight trains at either end of the 17-mile corridor.
Work on both projects should start this fall, said Bryan Viggiani, a state DOT spokesman.
Both projects are considered crucial to the state’s Empire Corridor plan to bring high-speed rail service to upstate, allowing rapid train travel from New York City to Niagara Falls, with the Rensselaer station serving as a major hub.
The start of work currently awaits finalization of an agreement for Amtrak to lease 85 miles of track between Poughkeepsie and Schenectady from its owner, CSX Transportation.
Speakers at Tuesday’s event said it makes sense for government to invest in better passenger rail service to reduce the number of gas-consuming. inter-city automobile trips.
“Why is it important to invest in rail? Rail is the most energy-efficient form of transportation,” said U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, who spoke at the ceremony.
The fourth loading track was part of the original station plan but was cut from the budget before construction.
“The fourth platform here will increase capacity,” said Sam Zhou, acting director of DOT Region One.
The Rensselaer station was completed in September 2002 at a cost of $53 million.
With high vaulted ceilings, enormous windows and an ornamental bell tower, the station sits on a hill and is a dominant feature of the Rensselaer skyline, directly across the Hudson River from downtown Albany.
The new station replaced a small and shabby facility as many travelers’ first impression of the Capital Region.
Since the station opened, the number of people passing through each year has grown from an average of 630,000 to more than 800,000, and it has become the ninth-busiest Amtrak station in the United States.
“As work on the fourth loading track and the second track continues, we expect the region to continue its march toward 1 million passengers a year,” said Denise Figueroa, CDTA’s board chairwoman.
Basile said CDTA, the regional transportation agency, decided in the late 1990s to get into the rail station business to increase the region’s mass transit options.
“CDTA’s mission is to provide quality transportation options to the people of the Capital Region and that goes beyond buses,” he said.
In addition to the announced rail infrastructure improvements, Basile said CDTA is looking at ways to expand available parking and could consider other ideas, too.
“Who knows? There might even be a hotel, as was originally envisioned in the project,” he told the crowd of CDTA employees, elected officials and reporters.
The success of the Rensselaer station subsequently prompted CDTA to tackle two other passenger rail station projects. It built a new Saratoga Springs station that opened in 2004 and is currently completing final design for a $14 million reconstruction of the downtown Schenectady train station.
Tonko said the projects lay the groundwork for future economic activity.
“Investing is the way we move to a more prosperous tomorrow,” he said. “Our agenda for rail has only just begun.”