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Reading transit hub goes from grim to grand

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 4:51 p.m.

READING — Dennis D. Louwerse needed fishing waders when he first visited the dilapidated Franklin Street Station with sights set on turning it into a BARTA service hub.

The roof of the historic train and bus station had collapsed during years of neglect. The basement was flooded. The outside was covered in graffiti.

Thick layers of muck shrouded the intricate terra-cotta and ironwork designs that adorned the station in its heyday, when it was a stop on the railroad that built Reading and put its name on the Monopoly board.

So as Louwerse, BARTA's executive director, stood in the cleaned, polished and restored building on Tuesday, he couldn't help but grin.

“It's marvelous,” he said. “There were all the naysayers: ‘Oh, you'll never get it done.' Well, we got it done.”

Work on the restoration, fueled by about $5 million in state and federal grants and about $200,000 from BARTA, started in November 2011. The project is nearly finished, and Louwerse said he expects a grand opening sometime in the next few months.

The agency's staff and board of directors toured the facility on Tuesday.

The station, at Seventh and Franklin streets, was built in 1929 as a hub for the Reading Railroad's rail and bus services. But the last train left in 1981, and the station has not been used since.

BARTA's goal was to renovate the facility to fit the needs of the bus service, while keeping the building's history intact.

“We tried to keep it as close to the original as possible,” said Bob Rimby, BARTA's project manager. “Everything we could save, everything we could reuse, we did.”

The tall windows, the terra-cotta walls, the terrazzo flooring, the iron designs around windows and the wall clock are all originals, now thoroughly cleaned and restored.

Some elements, like plaster ceilings and wooden benches, had to be replaced but stayed true to the originals.

After all, Rimby said, a lot has changed since 1929, and some adjustments had to be made.

Modern elements like air conditioning, security cameras, fire suppression and glass vestibules around doorways to keep in heat were added.

Some now-obsolete features like a separate ladies waiting lounge and a baggage handlers' room were converted for modern uses, like a computer room and a museumlike exhibit.

The refurbished Franklin Street Station will once again become Reading's transportation hub, Louwerse said, noting that it should be easy to connect it with the rest of BARTA's system.

It's across the street from BARTA's downtown parking garage and within a block of the transportation center at Eighth and Cherry streets that was completed in 2002.

Having the extra facility will allow BARTA to add service, such as a route being planned to take workers to the new Berks Park 78 industrial complex in Bethel Township, Louwerse said.

The Eighth and Cherry transportation center's capacity to service bus routes is nearly maxed out.

“Since we've built that, we've added more and more service,” Louwerse said.

The renovated Franklin Street Station may also be used to connect Berks County with neighboring regions. BARTA is working with public transportation officials in Lebanon County to possibly develop a joint bus service that would connect Reading and Lebanon.

And, Louwerse said, more regional connector routes may become the norm as transit companies look for ways to move commuters between regions.

Though most proposals to restore passenger rail service between Reading and Philadelphia have fallen apart as proponents struggle to find funding support, Louwerse said he's confident that eventually it will happen.

And when it does, he said, the Franklin Street Station will still be right along the rail line.

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