By Lauren Zaepfel
A new trolley system is planned to transport visitors to points of interest in communities along and around the Niagara Gorge this tourist season.
The "Discover Niagara Shuttle" is anticipated to kick off May 26 and run until Oct. 19. It will operate from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
The shuttle will include two trolleys and two smaller buses. With these four vehicles in circulation, one would arrive at each site every 20 minutes to both pick up and drop off passengers.
"This trolley will connect them to all those cultural assets that we have in our community and provide the opportunity for people to spend an extra day - and more time - to connect to local businesses that will have, we're hoping, an economic impact in our communities," said Sara Capen, executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area.
Capen, who is spearheading the project, said the route includes a general layover location at Old Main Street, which will be aligned with the NFTA-Metro Niagara Falls trolley. From there, the trolley will travel to the Niagara USA Visitors Center, Third and Falls streets, the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center, the Aquarium of Niagara, the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, the Niagara Falls Amtrak train station (future site of the Underground Interpretive Center), Whirlpool State Park, Niagara University's Castellani Art Museum, the New York Power Authority Power Vista, Lewiston's waterfront and Center Street and Youngstown's waterfront and Old Fort Niagara.
Capen said millions of people come to Niagara Falls, but they often only see the falls and leave.
State Assemblyman John Ceretto said, "The trolley is our hope that they're going to have more things to do and they'll stay here longer."
"We've been trying for years to stress the point that we have more than Niagara Falls here and you can spend three or four days here just exploring the area," said Robert L. Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara.
In addition to extending a visitor's stay, the shuttle is hoped to assist with transportation throughout the area.
"We have tons of attractions here, but the people that come here are not necessarily coming by car," Ceretto said.
"The trolley will make it easier for them to access all these other entities like the Power Vista, Lewiston, Youngstown, Fort Niagara, the (Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours) - all the attractions."
"Having the opportunity to hop on a trolley and not worry about your car and finding a place to park is a nice amenity for visitors to the area," Emerson said. "There are people who come to this area who don't bring their cars, so this is a great way ... to make the northern communities here much more accessible to those folks. It's also a very easy and convenient way for people who are staying in hotels in Niagara Falls to get around and about the county."
Gary Siddall, deputy director of the Aquarium of Niagara, said, "When we have visitors coming through, a lot of them are pedestrians that are walking through the state park system. So any way to make the ability for them to travel easier between the different tourist organizations is, of course, an opportunity that we're excited about."
He added, "We're always looking for opportunities to increase our guest visitation. ... So if it's easier for people to get here, it's easier for us to teach them about all the great work we do here."
Emerson said the trolley would help increase visitors to Old Fort Niagara, as well, because "There's a perception that the fort is a remote spot, which isn't true. We're only 20 minutes from Niagara Falls. ... We've got some wonderful scenery here in the lower River Region and people can get off and on that trolley and really enjoy looking at the scenery. ... I think it will shorten the journey, and I think it will make the journey a lot more attractive."
The Discover Niagara Shuttle is currently a two-year pilot program. Passengers will be able to ride the shuttle for free this season. However, tickets will be required to ride the shuttle, which will help track visitation during the pilot program. Next year, there may be a fee associated with the service, possibly amounting to $5, Capen said.
"The whole idea behind it is ... it hasn't been done. So this will allow us to be able to test it; to be able to change it; to be able to adapt it," she said. "It allows us to figure those things out.
"We want to also have a full year to successfully market it."
Capen began the project after she learned NYPA was looking into developing its own local shuttle service to the Niagara Project Power Vista Center, which was renovated.
When Capen heard of this, she said, " 'Why can't this be more? Why can't we use this opportunity to really extend into our historic and business districts and connect to other cultural sites? Why can't we expand it to Lewiston and Youngstown? Why can't we connect to Old Fort Niagara and the NACC, where you can really generate economic impact in our communities and connect to our cultural and historic destinations?' "
From there, Capen began working with stakeholders to evaluate and discuss costs needed to make the project happen.
In total, the service is expected to cost approximately $820,000 annually.
Those who have pledged to contribute funds to the project include NYPA, New York State Parks, USA Niagara Development Corp., Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., Ceretto and the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area.