Among the many follies that make up the history of Syracuse is OnTrack, the train service that began in 1994 to—rumor had it—shuttle riders from Armory Square to the Carrier Dome, Carousel Center and even Jamesville, mostly for Balloonfest. If you don’t remember it, you can still be reminded when you get off Route 81 at the Clinton/Salina streets exit.
There you’ll see a green OnTrack sign, with arrow, pointing you toward Armory Square and West Jefferson Street, where the raised tracks awaited the crush of passengers that never really showed up.
To be fair, at one time, the service was popular among Syracuse University football and basketball fans, who could park in the Trolley Lot behind the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology, drink themselves silly and then stumble on the train for a quick, yet noisy, jaunt to a platform just below the western side of the Carrier Dome. After the game they could take the train back, saving huge parking hassles, and some dough. The Orange Express cost a mere $4 round-trip.
An Internet search for OnTrack brought up a description of the service at tailgatehaven.com. “The thing I like about the Trolley Lot is I don’t have to worry about traffic and parking near the Dome. I arrive a few hours before the game and set up a tailgate in the Trolley Lot.” Unfortunately, that 700-space lot was closed Sept. 1 to make way for construction of a $70 million sewage storage facility.
Occasionally a vehicle-less SU student would board at the Dome and take the train to Carousel Center, a straight shot that avoided messy Route 81 and poorly marked parking lots. That cost $5 round-trip.
Problem was, OnTrack never made money, and in the summer of 2007 it abandoned all the routes except for the Orange Express, which folded nine months later.
But street signs pointing the way still stand, notably at the off-ramp from Route 81 south to Clinton and South Salina streets. When called, Jim French, superintendent of the Bureau of Transportation, Department of Public Works, wasn’t sure about whose responsibility it is to remove the signs, but he was certain that they don’t belong to the city. “Depending on where they are along Clinton Street,” he said, “they could be ours, they could be the state’s. I didn’t realize OnTrack went out of business.”
And so a quick call to the state Department of Transportation, and a helpful Michelle Opperman answered the phone. She wasn’t entirely certain about the ownership of the signs either, and she also expressed surprise that OnTrack is gone. But she gamefully forwarded a Michael Davis photo of the sign to her supervisor, who told her that DOT had not installed the sign, but he will have the department take it down “due to no existence of OnTrack.”
That will be welcome news to Melanie Boyer, speaking for the New York Susquehanna & Western, which operated OnTrack.
“That’s something that’s bothered me for years,” she said when asked about the still-standing signs. “They are handy for me to find my way to a meeting at the Armory Square office.
“It’s not like anyone used the service when the system was open, but everyone likes to talk about not having OnTrack anymore,” she mentioned, about a typical Syracusan trait: complaining. “The only riders at the end used it for SU basketball games but SU was not willing to help us with the cost. They wanted it because it helped with their parking for games, but they wouldn’t help pay for it. To pay for it, we would have had to lay off 10 workers, and which 10 would you like us to choose?” she asked rhetorically. “It was a total money pit for us.”