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Eric Ennis (’14) highlighted in local blog by Sean Kirst of

Eric Ennis, MPA 2014

Eric Ennis, MPA 2014

It is always gratifying to see one of your alumni being positively highlighted in the media ! It happens more frequently than I post…most certainly.. but I happily share this one as it also relates to a very timely topic for our local community.  And Eric, who graduated not quite 12 months ago, is already having a positive impact on local issues.


The following is COMPLETELY REPOSTED from, written by Sean Kirst… 

Seeing an old Syracuse rail service in a new way: Is there renewed hope for the Ontrack corridor?

Eric Ennis looks out at the old Ontrack system, and the Near West Side of Syracuse, during a forum on rail passenger service last month at Syracuse University’s downtown Warehouse. (Sean Kirst |
The Post-Standard

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on June 02, 2015 at 6:54 AM, updated June 02, 2015 at 9:29 AM

I’m an old guy in this town now, not so far away from 30 years with this paper, and this is the great benefit of listening to youth: Sometimes young people look at the obvious, and they’re not weighed down by the mistakes or silliness from the past, which is why I enjoy it when Eric Ennis starts talking about Ontrack.

You remember Ontrack, that quirky passenger rail service cooked up in Syracuse in the early 1990s. Operated by the Delaware Otsego Corp. of Cooperstown, it ran on a rail line once used by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western railroad. It also depended heavily on volunteers and some ancient rail cars.

During the time Ontrack survived, Ennis said, Syracuse was one of the smallest cities in the nation to offer passenger rail.

The service was around from 1994 to 2008. The way I remember it, the problem was – in so many ways – the system too often worked against itself. A platform on the western edge of Syracuse University, for instance, just down the hill from the Carrier Dome, was so lonely it was creepy; it seemed as if a pay phone there was always ripped apart, hardly a what-a-relaxing-place-to-wait statement for the student clientele that Ontrack wanted.

There was a main station at Armory Square, and another platform at what was then called Carousel Center. There were also plans to link the service – via a new Park Street bridge – with the William F. Walsh Transportation Center and NBT Stadium.

0924 TRAIN 1.JPGConductor Bill Giles (left) assists passengers on the first official train ride on Ontrack, 1994.

That gap was never bridged. As for the first train of the day, Ennis said it used to run at 11 a.m., which means Ontrack totally missed any shot at commuter traffic. In a particularly telling moment in 1999, there were brief hopes for a wave of riders when major construction closed down portions of Interstate 81. With federal support, Ontrack offered early morning rides, at no cost.

Despite that opportunity, the service didn’t take off during that time. Motorists adapted. They learned it was pretty easy to get around Syracuse, even with part of the interstate shut down.

By 2008, Ontrack was dead. One piece that did seem to work was the old Orange Express, which shuttled fans between Armory Square and the dome for SU games or events. It not only eased traffic near the arena, it brought customers to downtown bars and restaurants.

I can remember, if I timed it just right, being in the dome for the final buzzer, hustling down the hill to catch the train with my kids, and settling into my living room in Syracuse less than a half-hour after the game, thanks to the easy in-and-out of Ontrack.

Very nice. But not enough to save the entire system.

Ennis, 24, is administrator of Community Development Block Grants for the city. He spent part of his childhood in Syracuse and part in Cicero, and the dual experience leaves him seeing many of our city-suburban conflicts as pointless and self-destructive. He grows weary, he said, of the endless city vs. suburbs dynamic, when he feels there are solutions of universal benefit.

“My passion is for the region as a whole,” said Ennis, who studied planning at the University of Buffalo, where he did a senior thesis about Ontrack (read it here) and what he sees as the clear and correctable reasons for why it failed. He is again talking about that rail line, he said, because some of the major questions about our regional future hinge on transportation ….

And he feels as if the Ontrack line could be a civic gift, not an albatross.

Looming over everything is the debate about whether to remove or rebuild the Interstate 81 bridges. The Onondaga Citizens League and the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council are also embarking on separate studies involving aspects of transit in Syracuse, and how to best move people to work and services – (the OCL is having its first public study session today) – which leads Ennis to ask:

At a time when many cities are pouring truckloads of money into the bottomless pit of attempting to establish transit systems, shouldn’t we see a dedicated 10.1-mile right of way in the heart of our community as a golden and relatively low-cost opportunity?

Last month, I watched Ennis make that point during a public forum, hosted by the Moving People Transportation Coalition, at Syracuse University’s downtown Warehouse. He addressed a panel that included Frank Kobliski, executive director of Centro; David Aitken, an official with Destiny USA; Syracuse Common Councilor Jean Kessner; and Joe Hucko, a developer who’s brought back many downtown buildings.

When Ennis spoke of Ontrack and its potential, he said he did it as a citizen – and as voluntary co-chair of a transportation committee for 40 Below, a community group – not as a city employee.

What he hopes, beyond all else, is that we can move past reflexive skepticism about Ontrack, a skepticism built upon the limitations of what it used to be. Times have changed dramatically, Ennis said. The once-forlorn SU platform is near a burst of new development, including Dineen Hall, home to the college of law.

Downtown is brimming with residential growth. The Hotel Syracuse renovation is finally underway. ProLiteracy and WCNY have moved near the rail line, on the Near West Side. Aitken said an expanded Destiny USA offers significant potential for new riders. And even before we get into any talk of whether a new Park Street bridge might someday get built, Ennis floats this vision:

Imagine if downtown commuters, for a significantly lower fee than whatever it costs them to park downtown, could park near the mall and then ride Ontrack to work, thus avoiding the daily headaches of city traffic – and allowing for a drive home with basically zero hassle?

At last month’s forum, Kobliski, the top guy at Centro, responded to those dreams with one central challenge. Kobliski said he “loved Ontrack from the moment it was first conceived,” but he said transporting freight remains the priority on the rail line.

Freight, said Kobliski and others at the forum, always presents a formidable obstacle if you’re trying to run a reliable passenger service in the same corridor.

Beyond that, the Ontrack rail cars were sold long ago. The main station, shut down for railroad use, has been converted to office space by Hucko, who said the good news is that occupancy is 100 percent.

Yet Hucko, who has a major presence downtown, is certainly interested in the best possible transit system. At the Warehouse, he approached the question in a different way.

Too often, he said, land use in Syracuse lacks imagination – or anticipation. He remains astounded that Onondaga Community College – an institution intended, in many ways, to serve those who have the least – was put in a location so difficult to reach by foot.

Kessner interjected that transportation is a critical component in reviving an economy: “We’re heavily dependent on automobiles (in Syracuse), and if you don’t have one, it’s hard for you to fit in, and it’s hard for you to work,” she said.

Ennis pointed out that a retooled Ontrack could help with that reality, since it’s within easy walking distance of neighborhoods of struggle, in the city. But Hucko wondered if rail is truly the best longterm option for that wide-open Ontrack corridor, especially when such outfits as Google – with technicians who so often see what’s coming, digitally – are looking hard at the potential for driverless cars and even buses, which might someday make sense on what used to be the Ontrack route.

That kind of discussion, really, is all that Ennis wants. He’s young enough to believe old mistakes ought to be lessons, rather than a cause for paralysis. What he knows is that we have an existing right of way — in the heart of our city — that already ties together many civic attractions and institutions.

To him, it seems there has to be a way to make it work.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Post-Standard. Email him at or send him a message on Twitter.

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