Wabash Station has led a quiet existence for the past 40 years since the shrill whistles of the old iron horses that once shuttled residents to and from McBaine fell silent in 1964.
The grinding of diesel engines now fills the 95-year-old rail depot as Columbia Transit buses carry commuters throughout the city. But the building, which the city bought in 1977 as a hub for its bus system, is showing its age.
A myriad of structural and architectural problems plague the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. One problem is that the structure is too small to accommodate workers and a growing number of bus riders. That’s why city officials plan to spend $4.3 million to fix it.
While an expansion of the building will provide more breathing room, the primary goal is to revamp it.
“I’d say it’s extremely needy,” said Ken Koopmans, the city’s director of public transportation.
The list of needed repairs is long. The roof leaks; the limestone façade is eroding; the overhang is deteriorating; the all-original plumbing and pipes are about to give out; and the bathrooms are inaccessible to people with disabilities.
“We’ve had the city maintenance people look at it, but they can’t really make repairs,” Koopmans said.
The renovation should be under way by December of this year or January 2006. The renovation plans have been in the works since 1999.
Crews will first address the building’s immediate problems, then will build an addition to the rear of the building to create more space for offices and passenger waiting areas. They’ll later add a covered waiting area outside. Koopmans said the project will likely result in a game of musical chairs.
Offices for dispatchers, schedulers and the transit supervisor would be moved into the new addition to make more room for passenger waiting areas, Koopmans said.
The city also plans to move its parking utility offices out of the depot and into the Howard Municipal Building at 600 W. Broadway in early 2006. That building is scheduled for renovation this summer.
In the next 10 to 15 years, Koopmans said, the city might build a separate administrative building on the Wabash property and could even convert the area to more of an overall transportation center by bringing taxi and other bus services in.
Columbia Transit Director Mark Grindstaff said the expansion should be more accommodating to those who use public transportation.
“What customers will notice is an easier time boarding and exiting the buses,” he said. “It will allow us to transport more efficiently and safely than before.”
Columbia Transit’s statistics show that city buses will provide 500,000 rides to passengers this year, representing a 6 percent increase over last year. That doesn’t include stops on MU’s campus or paratransit riders, which brings the total to 1.5 million rides a year. Grindstaff said that increasing the number of passengers is difficult, but he hopes the Wabash Station work will help.
The Columbia City Council has taken several steps to speed up the project. On Monday, it approved the purchase of property adjacent to the station on Orr Street from MFA Oil Co. and plans to raze an older warehouse there. The purchase will give buses easier access to Orr Street, preventing the need to perform a waltz across the parking lot involving multiple 180-degree turns.
Last month, the council agreed to hire the 360 Architecture firm to head design and rehabilitation efforts.
The age and condition of Wabash Station presents uncommon challenges. The restoration project will require a collaborative effort from state and local officials to ensure the quaint depot maintains its historical significance.
The project will be funded with $2.37 million in federal grants from the 2004 omnibus budget, $475,000 from the city and a $352,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration.
The Historic Preservation Office at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources will keep an eye on the building throughout the process, acting as a consultant for the federal government, ensuring that federal laws are followed and that the project has no adverse impact.
“Groups consult with our office, and we help make the determination,” said Mark Miles, director of the State Historic Preservation Office. He said that the office generally reviews plans to ensure they hold up under federal guidelines and that an architect is on staff to review plans and make recommendations.
The city will rely on 360 Architecture to act as a consultant and present plans to the state for its review.
“They have a historical preservationist on their staff,” Koopmans said. “She will be in charge of coordinating the paper work and contacting them.”
In the end, nothing about the project will be allowed to harm the historical integrity of the building.
“I can’t build a Taj Mahal that totally understates the original structure and expect to get an OK,” Koopmans said.