Ball, who made $183,000 in salary and benefits last year, has been under some pressure lately. USRC collects rent from Ashkenazy and the parking garage to the tune of $10 million per year for maintenance, planning, and improvements. But its financial statements don’t include an itemized budget, prompting D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton to ask the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General for a yearly audit, citing “increasing evidence that USRC may not be able to meet its mandate to be self-supporting.”
“I don’t feel like I know anything about Union Station,” Norton says. “I don’t recall that we had any hearings on Union Station after the renovation of Union Station in the ’80s. And that was a big mistake. You never leave a massive government property with the feeling that nobody’s watching it.”
Union Station management first ticked Norton off in 2008, when photographers complained of being hassled after trying to take pictures in the main hall. She held hearings in 2008 and 2009, and was irked by the realization that nobody could articulate a cohesive vision for the station’s future.
Ball says things were moving forward. “The stakeholders were all conscious,” he says. “There may not have been a formalized master plan, but the stakeholders all understood the importance of what we were trying to develop here.”
That might be true. But it’s not enough to make the case to anyone else that development should be supported. Union Station has already missed out on grants that would have redone the Metro entrance and built elevators to a new streetcar connection. USRC estimates its wish list will cost a total of $450 million, and right now, it’s unclear where most of that money will come from.
“Without Union Station looking like it is spunky and raring to go, as the new destination spot for transportation and mixed use, it’s going to be difficult to get the attention of the federal government, and a lot of the money has to come from the federal government,” Norton says. “So Union Station needs to be a centerpiece in order for Congress to focus on it like they did when they renovated it. Congress is used to people who want to get something done saying, ‘Wow, this is what we want to get done, isn’t this terrific? What do you think of this?’ Instead, we had to push them, to do what should have been obvious.”
Even after its renovation 25 years ago, Union Station was torn between its various identities. Was it mostly a train station, or mostly a shopping mall? Did it cater to visitors, or to people who lived in D.C.? The stands selling state flags and historical Americana seemed aimed at tourists. The basement movie theater, which closed two years ago, drew boisterous crowds of locals.
That split sense of purpose is still evident today, even if the stalls selling knicknacks to folks from out of town have been replaced by higher-end shops like Aerosoles and Oakley. Take a look at the food court, which is practically the official dining destination of every Future Farmers of America delegation that visits Congress, but which also draws workers from the newer office complexes in NoMa.
Which is why a building serving as many different constituencies as Union Station should have one underlying master plan that takes into account the needs of all the station’s tenants. As visions evolve for new renovations, the station’s finite size inevitably creates conflicts: intercity buses vs. tour buses, retail vs. Amtrak waiting areas, train tracks vs. streetcar tracks.
Just this year, the station took on a whole new role by serving as an intercity bus terminal. A few weeks ago, a small cluster of executives and public-relations types huddled together with a dancing mascot on the parking deck, where lines of travelers now shiver on the open tarmac. The suits were there for speeches and a ribbon cutting to celebrate the arrival of Megabus, now officially housed at the station after having been shunted from various Washington curbs to the old convention center site to a parking lot at North Capitol Street and K Street NW.
The pomp was justified. Getting all six intercity bus lines housed on the parking deck had required years of browbeating from Norton and “countless” meetings in her office. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood himself was in on some of them, and his deputy John Porcari—a Marylander who sits on USRC’s board—attended those LaHood couldn’t make. “It was really Union Station administration that really made it slow for many, many years,” says Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association. “It was really the involvement of LaHood and Porcari that made it happen quickly.”