A new era in transportation in western Massachusetts begins in a few days. After being closed for decades, Union Station in Springfield is reopening following a years-long $95 million dollar restoration and redevelopment.
James Sullivan, 96, remembers Union Station during its glory days.
" I can remember coming down from Northampton on the old railroad," Sullivan recalled during a visit to Union Station earlier this year with veterans from the Holyoke Soldiers Home.
" It was quite an operation," Sullivan recalled. " We didn't spend too much time here, they were just loading you up and getting you out of here."
He described the train station he first saw in 1939 as a bustling place, crowded with people waiting to board a train, or coming from one that just arrived. There were places to grab a hot dog, or get your haircut.
Union Station was in use from 1926 to 1973 when it closed. Now after standing derelict for decades it has been brought back as a modern transit hub for inner-city and inter-city buses as well as trains.
The driving force behind the project is Congressman Richard Neal. When he announced his candidacy for Springfield City Council in front of a dark and empty Union Station in 1977, Neal promised to revitalize and reopen the station. It took 40 years, but he kept the promise.
" Sometimes in the course of a career one has the opportunity to say they've had a chance to participate in a ' it will never happen' moment," Neal said.
In the decades that followed the closing of Union Station, various proposals to redevelop the property came and went. In 2008, local, state, and federal officials unveiled the project to restore and renovate the station’s main building, and demolish an adjacent baggage building to put in outdoor bus bays and build a 400-space parking garage.
The original price tag was $65 million.
By 2011, Neal, using the now-forbidden earmarking process, had secured $38 million for the project.
In the summer of 2012, the U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to Springfield to announce $17 million for the project to allow construction work to actually begin.
" This is just a win, win, win," said LaHood at the time. "Not only for Springfield but the Northeast Corridor and most importantly for people who are looking for a good-paying and long-lasting job."
A few months later there was a groundbreaking ceremony with then-Gov. Deval Patrick announcing additional state funding.
" Your Commonwealth is proud to invest in a seed project which about generating jobs and opportunity on this project but beyond this project in this community, in this city and in this region," said Patrick at the ceremony.
As construction work progressed, officials blamed the millions in cost overruns on problems encountered as a result of the age and condition of the building. The surprise discovery of a buried fuel oil tank resulted in a costly environmental cleanup.
The final piece of funding for the project, $12 million, was announced in 2015 by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
" And we could not be happier to invest these dollars," said Polito. " We know that an investment in Springfield is an investment you will leverage and stretch."
The passenger waiting area of the station includes the original terrazzo floor and 54-inch marble-faced clock refurbished to working condition and hung in its original spot.
Artifacts from the old station including a baggage cart and a couple of old barbers’ chairs have been restored and are on display. There are murals that highlight the history of Union Station.
But the expensive project is about more than nostalgia. Mayor Domenic Sarno said it is intended to connect Springfield to a prosperous future.
" You can see such stations as South Station in Boston and what it has become there, and that is what we are looking for here going forward," said Sarno.
Union Station is reopening with very limited train service. There are only two long-distance Amtrak trains with scheduled stops. But Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack says be patient.
" We think that Union Station will grow incrementally as a train station," said Pollack. " And remember it is being built as a multi-model station, so the folks who are there using buses and folks who are walking in and using the service retailers are important too."
After a project is completed to upgrade tracks in Connecticut next year, up to a dozen trains a day are expected to run between Springfield and Hartford, with some continuing to New Haven where connections can be made to New York City.
The prospect for trains between Springfield and Boston is being looked at as part of a statewide rail plan, according to Pollack.