Union Station in line for $10 billion facelift, but questions remain

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
People walk through Union Station in Washington, July 25, 2012.

Union Station is in line for its first major facelift in more than three decades, an investment that railroad and city officials say will help to move more passenger trains through the busy Northeast Corridor while modernizing a critical gateway to the nation’s capital.

Plans for the 115-year-old train hub include updated concourses and tracks, more retail options, a new train hall and modern parking and bus facilities. The proposed expansion, at least a $10 billion private and public expense, calls for a transformation of the nation’s second-busiest intercity rail hub by 2040.

The improvements would be the first since a $160 million restoration was completed in the late 1980s, when Union Station reopened as both a rail stop and a 110-store mall to become a shopping and dining destination on Capitol Hill. That vibrancy has dissipated, leaving a station that some D.C. officials, neighbors and passengers describe as outdated, unwelcoming and unsafe.

“There’s little reason to go inside if you aren’t trying to catch a train,” D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said.

The Federal Railroad Administration this summer unveiled images of plans for the station that show a spacious, light-filled atrium with large skylights and soaring ceilings. The station’s iconic main hall – with its 96-foot-tall ceilings lined with 23-carat gold – will be preserved. But much of the attached spaces will be redone to add wider rail platforms, a new bus terminal and updated concourses lined with shops and restaurants and with better access to Metrorail, buses, taxis, ride-hailing services, streetcars and parking.

“Modernizing the station would expand existing transit systems – meeting riders’ needs, aiding economic growth and positioning the historic station as a leading multimodal transportation hub well into the future,” the Federal Railroad Administration, which owns Union Station, said in a statement.

Although plans call for station upgrades to be finished in about 18 years, much of the timetable is unclear. The federal environmental review of the project, which began in 2015, is at least three years behind schedule. No funding has been secured for the renovation, according to the FRA, and such a pricey project, it said, “will require funding partners prepared to invest.”

The FRA, which is leading the project’s environmental review, paused the process for almost two years to revise the plan and respond to concerns from federal planners, the city and residents that it was too car-centric. A revised plan unveiled in summer eliminated a six-story garage and relocated parking and drop-off areas to an underground facility, which officials said will improve traffic circulation around the station. The changes are likely to increase the project’s cost.

The FRA is expected to complete the review – a requirement to move the proposed revamp toward construction – in late 2023. Once the federal approval process is complete, an extensive design phase is likely to take several years, project officials said, possibly followed by more than a decade of construction.

The revised plan includes a major reconfiguration of the bus terminal to align with a new train hall. The decision to move parking underground frees up space that would be used to create a park area and plazas. Directing some pickup and drop-off traffic below ground will help reduce congestion off Columbus Circle. Additional pickup space is planned at grade level off H Street NE.

The project was proposed by Amtrak and the Union Station Redevelopment Corp., which manages and operates Union Station under a long-term lease from the FRA. The plans call for an overhaul of Amtrak’s second-busiest rail station – after New York’s Penn Station – where many facilities date back to the D.C. station’s 1907 opening.

The renovation would also triple passenger capacity and transform the station into a hub for high-speed rail. Project documents completed before the pandemic said the existing platforms and waiting areas were at or exceeding capacity.

The station’s foot traffic and train operations have been reduced during the pandemic. Before 2020, Union Station had about 40 million visitors each year and was served by 85 to 90 intercity Amtrak trains daily. It is also the Washington region’s busiest transit hub, connecting Amtrak, Metro, Virginia Railway Express, Maryland MARC commuter trains, and intercity and local buses.

Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said the railroad “is working with both public and private partners to explore all funding opportunities available for the project” and continues to work with USRC and the FRA. Amtrak earlier this year began a legal campaign to take over leasing rights owned by Union Station Investco at the station, a move that some local and transportation officials say could help redevelopment efforts.

The project would allow for a separate private development in the airspace above the train tracks. Developer Akridge is planning to add up to a dozen buildings – with a mix of residential, office, hotel and cultural uses – along 15 acres of air rights it owns from north of Union Station to K Street NE. The estimated $3 billion project, known as Burnham Place, is contingent upon the station’s redevelopment.

The proposed expansion ranks as a top contender in the Northeast Corridor for federal infrastructure money through the law signed last year by President Biden. About $66 billion is earmarked for rail over five years, while the project also could use millions of additional dollars available for transit and other infrastructure projects.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) earlier this year stood inside the station to say the city was ready to work with the federal government, Amtrak and USRC to secure some of that funding for the redevelopment.

“The potential that this site holds is enormous,” Bowser said at the time.