OnTrack Syracuse: An Odd Transit Experiment That Almost Worked

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“Buffalo has a subway?” That’s how most people respond when I tell them about that city’s light rail line. It’s true, Buffalo has a few miles of subway/light rail track that connects downtown with The University of Buffalo South Campus. But ask people outside of Buffalo to raise their hands if they know this line exists and you’ll get a crowd of empty pockets.

You’ll likely get even fewer hands in the air if you ask people outside of Syracuse if they realize that The Salt City had an intra-urban commuter rail line as recently as 11 years ago. OnTrack, which began in Fall of 1994, connected Destiny USA Mall (then known as the Carousel Mall) to Armory Square, Syracuse University and Colvin Street 7 days a week, as well as Jamesville on the weekends. A handful of diesel-powered “Budd Cars” transported passengers to and from jobs, events, college classes, sporting events and local businesses for more than 13 years, before cutbacks and lack of ridership led to the outfit’s eventual demise.

The signs still hang in the abandoned Armory Square OnTrack station

Still, a city of around 150,000 people had several years of a successful, even expectation-exceeding heavy commuter rail ridership in a Rust Belt state. Only when mismanagement of funds by the operating company, a lack of any marketing presence, and a series of service cutbacks led to a drastic decline in passengers did the idea begin to fade into what is now a network of empty stations.

The story goes like this… Onondaga County and the New York Susquehanna and Western railroad partnered to create and operate OnTrack, which would exist on a section of underused Conrail (now CSX) track that was sold to the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency for $1. The OCIDS leased the track to the NYSW for a bargain price, allowing them to operate freight service in exchange for operating passenger services using 4 acquired Budd Railcars, as well as extensive tax breaks.

A New York Susquehanna & Western locomotive pulls a string of freight cars along the former OnTrack line

Initially, OnTrack was a success, hauling nearly 50,000 passengers in the first 3 months of service, exceeding expectations. It seemed that Syracuse had hit a home run with an idea that would connect meaningful destinations in a city that was otherwise losing population.

But the line never made money. Government subsidies kept the line running, despite the fact that many of the subsidies the NYSW Railroad was receiving were being spent to maintain track in other areas instead of OnTrack. Initial popularity of the line led to proposals for service between Syracuse and Binghamton, but the reality was little more than excursion trains rather than commuter service. Another proposal sought to extent the north side of the line from the Destiny USA mall station to the nearby minor league baseball stadium, connecting the Syracuse Amtrak/Greyhound station in the process. This project actually received funding, but was ultimately nixed by neighboring railroad, CSX’s objection due to engineering issues with a proposed bridge over Park Avenue. Indeed, the story that might ultimately be told about this commuter line’s demise is the simple bridge that was never built. A connection to Syracuse’s Amtrak and Greyhound stations, as well as their AAA baseball stadium might have been just the jolt that the line needed to survive.

But an inability to expand on the original excitement, a redistribution of funds allocated to the operating railroad, a lack of consistent marketing, a failure to connect residential areas of Syracuse to jobs, and a bridge that never was, all proved to be the dagger in the heart of what was initially a great idea. By 2003, service was reduced to 4 days a week, and by 2007, it was further diminished to weekend service, with a ridership of 50 passengers per day.

Before I conclude this story, I want to talk about a sort of lost romanticism. I don’t often talk about the ghosts of our urban transit initiatives, because most of them died more than 50 years ago.

But this is fresh. This is recent and new, a scar that still shows itself in a series of empty stations and a memory of something that, if the stars aligned, could have been uniquely urban for a city that’s just beginning to find its footing again. Ride an Amtrak train to The Salt City and you’ll see the northernmost station laying irrelevant, abandoned, and alone.

The rusting remains of OnTrack’s Carousel Mall station are very much visible today

Imagine if one railroad hadn’t misdirected funds. Imagine if another hadn’t blocked the construction of an important bridge to the future. Imagine if expansion to Syracuse’s residential areas was a part of OnTrack’s plan. Imagine, for a moment, that all the pieces of this great urban idea worked. Would we be talking about the smallest city that experienced that most robust Rust Belt revival because they had the foresight to believe in the power of rail-based intra-urban transit? Better yet, with Syracuse’s downtown beginning to see a serious revival, would OnTrack have seen more sustainable success if it debuted today instead of 25 years ago when the city was still scrambling for direction? Read local blogs and hear faint whispers around ‘Cuse and you’ll know that there are many who believe the time to revisit the OnTrack spirit might be upon us. But the reality of passenger rail is an incredible long shot. With the increasing popularity of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and other more flexible transit options, any new major transit initiative would likely take the form of a bus than a rail car.

OnTrack had a good start, but issues of stagnation, barriers to further growth and expansion, and the misuse of public funds (among a number of other hurdles) prohibited us from realizing its potential. So often a transit idea is good, but the execution has to be perfect for it to work. Because of this, the future of urban transit expansion (especially rail) in mid-sized cities is in serious doubt, or at least in limbo. And since we are not exactly sure what urban mobility will look like in 10-15 years, cities, counties and regions are understandably hesitant to commit large sums of money and lay down permanent infrastructure. Still, OnTrack’s brief flirtation with some kind of commuter rail success shows that it IS possible, however improbable, to garner substantial rail ridership in a small-to-mid-sized city.