NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — New York’s biggest subway hub has opened in Lower Manhattan, serving as a vital link between the new World Trade Center and the rest of the city.

The $1.4 billion Fulton Center opened to the public Monday at 5 a.m. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority inaugurated the center on Sunday.

“I expect them to come in and see something they have never seen,” said MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu. “This is something new, exciting and one of a kind.”

“The center is an important symbol for New York in so many ways,” said MTA chief Tom Prendergast.

“For the first time in as long as anyone can remember, they’re going to be treated like the people who walk into a grand public space,” said MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg.

Officials said the transit and retail hub will serve as Lower Manhattan’s “next great public space.” Its soaring street-level atrium is encased in a glass-and-steel shell, with luminous interior panels leading to a skylight designers call the “oculus,” Latin for eye.

It also includes nearly 66,000 square feet of retail and office space.

The center will accommodate up to 300,000 daily riders using the 2, 3, 4, 5 subway lines, plus the A, C, J, Z and R.

A 350-foot tunnel links the Fulton Center to the World Trade Center’s Santiago Calatrava-designed transit facility under construction and the PATH commuter train to New Jersey. That tunnel will open sometime next year.

The 27 entrances to the facility are all handicap-accessible.

Construction of this vital subway hub was fraught with challenges. The five underground subway stations partly damaged on Sept. 11, 2001, were closed for months. Then, in 2012, flood waters from Superstorm Sandy roared into the tunnels, crippling service.

Now, just feet from the revitalized trade center, the complex is part of a “new hot area,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY.

“It shows you how New York City can always reinvent itself and get better,” said Schumer, remembering the gloomy maze of the old Fulton stop where “you would have to rush through those narrow corridors weaving through passengers; everyone is going in every direction, where you could knock someone over or they’d knock you over.”

Many commuters were excited to see the new space when it opened Monday morning.

“Very beautiful,” one man told WCBS 880’s Paul Murnane. “I hope we can keep it this way.”

“It’s amazing,” another man told 1010 WINS’ John Montone. “Almost like a piece of art.”

“I love it, I was waiting for this to open,” Eslyn Vyphuis of East Flatbush told CBS2’s Janelle Burrell.

“It’s nice open, big, it’s clean,” said Melissa Wooten of Jersey City.

“I’ve been coming into this station for the last 25 years, so I’m looking at it right now, and I’m like, ‘Is this the same place?'” said Jhonny Rampersad of South Ozone Park.

The Fulton project includes the restoration of an early high-rise, the 125-year-old Corbin Building with a sumptuous, nine-story tower. Its original stone foundation is exposed over a set of Fulton escalators.

The federal government-funded 90 percent of the project and the state the rest, about $850 million from a special congressional appropriation in the wake of 9/11.

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