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Long-delayed Union Station Project May Still Get on Track
Union Station

Union Station

When the state Executive Office of Transportation (EOT) recently awarded Springfield $350,000 to create a new development plan for Union Station, it revived the hopes of those who believe the project holds the promise of economic development, higher property values, and a more vibrant lifestyle in downtown Springfield.

One thing it does not promise is instant gratification.

“This is a very large, complex, and lengthy project — a project that will take years to be completed,” said David Panagore, Springfield’s economic development director. “That said, there are substantial state and federal resources already leveraged.”

Indeed, $37 million in federal dollars alone have been earmarked toward the project, $7 million of which has already been spent on efforts to slow the building’s deterioration, including asbestos removal and a new roof. But the project has been stalled ever since.

As envisioned several years ago, an intermodal transportation project at Union Station, integrating intra-city and inter-city bus lines, taxi service, and Amtrak rail service — in addition to possible retail and office components — would cost $115 million to complete. Supporters of the project see that as a worthy investment.

“This project is a key step in the city regaining its stride as the driver of the Western Mass. economy,” Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray said in announcing the latest state grant.

That EOT grant was awarded to the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA), which will work with the city and the Springfield Redevelopment Authority to develop a new, economically viable plan for the long-delayed project.

“The job here in Washington is getting the funding, and we’ve gotten a significant amount,” said U.S. Rep. Richard Neal. But now comes the hard part. The rest of the funds have long been frozen by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which requires a certain degree of progress — and an economically feasible plan — before the funding becomes available in Springfield.

“I agree with holding the funding back,” Neal told BusinessWest. “You need progress, you need benchmarks, and you need some achievement. At the same time, you can’t overstate how difficult these projects are.”

With the vision of Union Station as a mixed-use boon for Springfield apparently still alive, city officials and planners hope the next several months provide answers — and some real progress on a project that some had considered dead in the water.

Train Not in Vain

On the contrary, said Neal, noting that transportation-oriented developments that mix transit with housing, restaurants, retail, and office space are on the rise nationwide. He cited a recent Wall Street Journal article detailing how cities across the U.S. — from Charlotte and Denver to Arlington, Va. and even Naugatuck, Conn. — have been banking on multimodal transit projects as economic drivers.

In fact, 100 such developments have already been completed across the country, with another 100 in the pipeline.

Research suggests benefits that go beyond mere transportation convenience. For example, the Journal article noted, economists from the University of North Texas found that, between 1997 and 2001, office properties near suburban Dallas Area Rapid Transit stations increased in value 53% more than comparable properties not served by rail, and values of residential properties rose 39% more.

That’s especially relevant in Springfield, which has been trying to attract more downtown commercial development and higher-value housing.

“These projects are very difficult, and the buildings we’re talking about here are old,” Neal said, referring to the two existing Union Station structures, totaling 213,000 square feet. “But there’s an emerging pattern across the country where these projects are beginning to catch on.”

He mentioned similar restorative projects he has observed in St. Louis and Albany — one a major metropolis, and one a city around Springfield’s size — as “impressive accomplishments” that might be duplicated here in Western Mass.

But the first step toward realizing that vision is a new plan. The PVTA will hire a consultant by the end of August, who will be charged with presenting a feasibility study and project plan to be submitted to state and federal agencies six months later.

“In the past, the prior administration had spent all the planning dollars that were made available by the EOT and the FTA, and this gives us a fresh start,” said Mary MacInnes, PVTA administrator. “If we didn’t have this funding, there would be no way for us to prepare a plan.”

The plan, she said, must propose a transportation component, detailing how PVTA buses, Peter Pan buses, taxis, and trains would serve the station. To that end, she said it’s important to involve potential stakeholders such as Peter Pan and Amtrak — which owns the actual track — early in the process. “We want to get these organizations in on the ground floor.”

Peter Picknelly, president of Peter Pan Bus Lines, said he wants to be involved in any discussion of the redevelopment of Union Station, which was built in 1926 but has been largely vacant for the past four decades.

“The reason we’ve been involved in these meetings is that the project cannot be viable without the inter-city bus,” Picknelly said. “We’re the major transportation component in this city. I don’t mean to be arrogant, but I don’t believe the project works without us.” He noted that 11,000 people enter the current downtown bus terminal every day, making it the most-trafficked building in Springfield.

Picknelly’s vision for Union Station goes beyond moving the bus terminal there, however. He told BusinessWest that he wants to work with the project’s development team to examine the possibility of making the Peter Pan company the site’s major tenant, moving its operations to Union Station and occupying up to 30,000 square feet of office space.

“If done correctly, this will be very good for downtown Springfield,” Picknelly said, noting that Peter Pan has participated in the Union Station revival efforts in Worcester and Hartford. “Those stations have been successful with trains, buses, and taxis combining. So we’re very supportive of this project. It could be the catalyst for real economic development downtown.”

Next Stop, Springfield

However, said Panagore, the first step is producing a study that grounds the eventual redevelopment in economic reality.

“Who are the projected users, and based on that, what would be the transit-related uses?” he asked. “Is there too much office space? Is it right-sized, or should it be smaller? We need to make a viable project that works for Springfield’s market realities.”

He said Springfield officials would like to avoid as much as possible the funding model of Worcester, in which the city underwrites a portion of the cost of its Union Station operations.

“At the end of the day,” Panagore said, “this needs to be sustainable, it has to be feasible, and it has to pay for itself.”

Whether or not the city can answer those questions could decide the fate of the federal money already earmarked, he said. “The federal government is looking for us to meet these benchmarks. Those funds are currently available, but we have to make sure they stay available.”

Neal said it’s a goal worth pursuing, not only because of the project’s projected economic benefits, but because of the significant emotional ties Union Station has for the city.

“This is where soldiers shipped off for World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, which highlights its significance in history,” he said. “But it also has considerable opportunity for the future.”

Still, with so much money on the line, said Panagore, city officials know that it’s crucial to get the details right, no matter how long the planning process might take.

“In everything we participate in, whether it’s the State Street Alliance or the work we’ve done with market-rate housing downtown, we’re making sure we do our work, our due diligence, up front,” he said. “What we want to create are sustainable, viable projects based on more than a wing and a prayer.

“We’ve been a big champion of this project,” he added. “Those funds were made available for Springfield, and they need to stay in Springfield.”

Neal agrees. “This has enormous potential,” he said. “And securing $37 million is no easy task in Washington.”

Neither, it seems, is bringing a complex, multi-modal transit project to fruition. But for those who believe Union Station could one day be a revitalizing force in downtown Springfield, it’s time — and eventually money, they hope — well-spent.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]