Housing Complex

Union Station Can’t Get It Together

Plans in progress. (USRC)

The transit world was abuzz yesterday with news of the Obama administration's $2 billion worth of improvements for high-speed rail service in the Northeast Corridor, Midwest, and California. Guess who missed out? The District, of course.

Specifically, Union Station, which hasn't had major infrastructure improvements since the 1980s, and has only increased Metro station capacity by one escalator and one elevator since 1976. Since 2009, the District Department of Transportation has been working on plans to overhaul the station with access and capacity improvements. It's a $36 million project, none of which is funded yet, and the District had been hoping that the feds might kick in $12 million with this round of funding. Here's the scope of work, via DDOT:

The District Department of Transportation submitted a final design and construction project for a series of Union Station access and capacity improvements.  The project, prepared in conjunction with the Union Station Redevelopment Corp. and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, would improve access between the Union Station Metrorail station and the Amtrak train concourse, construct additional elevators and escalators to improve vertical access, complete a partially-built pedestrian passageway from Union Station to H Street, NE and build elevators to connect the passageway to the H Street bridge and busy WMATA bus routes along H Street.  The work will also provide a direct passenger connection between Union Station and the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line.

So, that's not happening for a while.

It's disappointing to see the District miss out on yet another transit-related grant, after whiffing on the TIGER II round as well. At a streetcar forum on April 20, DDOT's Scott Kubly noted this has a lot to do with D.C.'s lack of voting representation; Eleanor Holmes Norton just doesn't have the pull of New York's congressional delegation in these processes.

In the mean time, I wonder whether this will affect the discussion between Amtrak and DDOT over the eventual terminus of the H Street/Benning Road streetcar at Union Station. Amtrak itself has been quiet about its side of the negotiations—in response to a question about what considerations were in play, a spokeswoman just sent over the following statement: "Amtrak is currently in discussion with the District to find a satisfactory solution that will support both the District’s objectives with respect to the streetcar line and Amtrak’s need to improve the capacity and level of existing and future passenger rail service."

The "future passenger rail service" is what didn't get funded in this round. So, speculatively, it will be difficult for Amtrak to know what it might be able to build in the future—and DDOT needs Amtrak to figure that out and commit to an agreement by the end of the summer, if streetcars are to get rolling on schedule.

The $36 million slate of improvements does not include the proposed "pit" in the floor of Great Hall, which preservationists raised a ruckus over last summer and haven't heard anything about since. "The cuts in the main floor are still being discussed," emailed a spokeswoman from the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation. "At this point all the stakeholders concerns and issues are being considered to reach a design solution."

Somewhat tangentially, the Redevelopment Corporation has been irritating Norton for a few years now, but she was particularly vituperative when talking to me a few weeks ago about their failure to incorporate intercity bus lines into the station. "It's an outrage that Union Station's not moved beyond the so-called pilot," she said, speaking of the program launched at the beginning of 2010. "Union Station is really out of it. I could not be more unsatisfied with Union Station management... They're stuck, and for no reasons. During the four years when the Democrats were in control of Congress, we had to have countless meetings and hearings. That's how we got this pilot program. They have no vision. They've failed to submit a final master plan. It can't continue."

All in all, a sad situation. I'll be writing more about this in the future, so if you've got particular information or insight, please send it my way: ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    Lydia: Please make sure you find out more about the streetscape project in front of Union Station (around Columbus Circle) as well. I remember Gabe Klein making some announcement about that years ago, and obviously nothing has been done. It's a shame that the gateway for so many to the city is in such a state of disrepair and neglect.

  • notaDCcommish

    Are you sure that Norton is even trying? I just get the sense that she's coasting.

  • Hillman

    Agreed with IMGoph. Union Station is the gateway to DC for so many visitors, and it's exterior is pretty sad.

    But I'd say far more disturbing is the massive gauntlet of beggars you have to get through if you make the mistake of trying to leave Union Station via Mass Ave on foot. A lot of these folks are quite aggressive, and no one seems to take responsibility for making sure tourists can actually walk out of Union Station without being accosted aggressively.

  • Typical DC BS

    When will people realize Eleanor Holmes Norton has no power and can't get things done?

    The main rail line usage in the entire USA is between DC and Boston. The idiotic Democrats put in place a plan to spend BILLIONS on rail service in states where the usage will never justify all that money spent "studying" and planning rail usage, all as part of the spending boondoggle to "pump money into the economy".

  • Sally

    It's funny listening to Eleanor complaining about someone being useless.

  • Hillman


    A lot of the Amtrak lines were put in as a sop to Republican politicians who demanded a line through their locality no matter what the cost.

  • Jim Churchll

    Late critics of Union Station should be very careful when they complain about the admitted shortcomings of the facility. But also remember that it is the focal point of tourism and visitors likely exceed any single attraction here including monuments on American's money they've seen since elementary school. As for Amtrak, it is not to satisfy Republicans; it is to provide mobility to the far reaches of our unique, large country and wherever it serves, it is heavily used. Rail service and transportation is not a partisan matter. One fillup at $4 or an interuption in supply will and has made that point. A multi-trillion dollar failed oil war underlines this poignantly.

  • Brahmin

    Great transit story...and by the way--what happened to that kitten on the other page?

  • MJ

    Let's not conflate issues here. Even a full representative would have viturally no clout compared to the entire NY delegation. And EHN is useless anyway.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    Lots of good comments here. Problems with the station are partly due to the quasi-public corporation that has the lease of the building for the rest of our lifetimes. They don't manage the building in terms of its role within the city as a key entrypoint, tourist attraction etc. (e.g., for years I have argued that there should be interpretative information displayed, which mostly isn't).

    The streetscape issue is complicated by the fact that the NPS has control of the front plaza. But if the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation "cared" about the viability of their brand, wouldn't they have developed an MOU with NPS sometime in the last 23 years that the station has since been reopened?, to ensure that the plaza is adequately maintained and supports the building and its role within the city.

    That's but one example.

    There should be a real visitor center, even small, there, among other services, transit wayfinding to explain how to use the various transit and tourist bus options, better bus shelters on the outside, etc.

  • andrew

    This is a somewhat odd comment to make, but the homeless guys living by the Mass Ave exit of Union Station are actually pretty friendly. I walk by them quite often, and have never been hassled by them. There's almost always a USCP officer stationed right across the street, so it's unlikely that any of them would attempt a crime.

    I know this ignores the larger issues of poverty and homelessness, but it's wrong to single out those few people.

    ...and I agree with Richard Lyman and IMGoph. Columbus Circle could be so much better than it currently is. Right now, it's a maze of rotting pavement and "temporary" concrete bollards that have been in place since 9/11. It was also the absolute last place in the city to be shoveled/plowed after the Snowpocalypse.

    I'm certainly happy that Union Station is not New York Penn Station. However, I'm also occasionally disappointed that it seems to be permanently suspended a few steps away from being truly "great."

  • Bob

    All EH ("Representation Without Taxation") Norton knows how to do is beat her outrage drum and alienate her colleagues on both sides of the aisle. You would think that she and her staff would at least know how to lobby the executive branch, which is Democratic control. It's time for DC to "overcome" Norton and get a representative in there who knows how to build bridges instead of burning them.