$7 Billion Plan for D.C.'s Union Station Announced

The undertaking would be one of the country's most expensive transportation infrastructure projects. But at least one hurdle remains: how to pay for it.
by | July 26, 2012
 

City leaders, Amtrak officials and local developer Akridge announced Wednesday a new $7 billion plan to redevelop Washington, D.C.,'s iconic Union Station.

The undertaking -- which at that price tag would make it one of the country's most expensive transportation infrastructure projects -- would eventually triple the capacity of Union Station and transform it into a key hub for Amtrak's planned high-speed rail efforts in the Northeast Corridor.

Officials presenting the details of the project stressed that the footprint of the building would remain the same, and the original architecture of the century-old building would remain unchanged.

Still, it remains to be seen how the project could actually be funded.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's non-voting congressional representative, questioned critics who might balk at the lack of a funding plan for the ambitious project. “That is not realistic, nor is it fair," Norton said. "That’s not how you fund a plan for the decades."

Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman clarified, saying that it's not reasonable to expect a funding plan to be in place this early in the project's timeline. He said that 50 percent to 80 percent of the project could be covered by federal funds. "Some can come from the states, some from the local city government, some can come from the operators themselves,” he said.

Congress has a renewed focus on spending cuts, and in January it is poised to allow $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending cuts over the next decade to start taking effect. It hasn't allocated any money to the project.

The proposed plan includes the creation of a new train "shed" behind the current station, where passengers will board and depart from trains (though to call it a shed does injustice to the dramatic flowing glass structure Amtrak has envisioned).

The station would employ multiple levels of tracks in order to best make use of its available space. Tracks currently only operate on one level of the facility. Norton says there's no room for the station to expand beyond its current boundaries. "Of course, that leaves only two directions to go: up and down," she said.

In addition to the $7 billion expansion of Union Station itself, Akridge is pursuing a $1.3 billion project called Burnham Place that is adjacent to the rail hub. It features 1.5 million square feet of office space,100,000 square feet of retail space, 1,300 residential units and 500 hotel rooms. It will also include a plaza, a stop on the city's forthcoming trolley line, an entrance to Union Station, and an elevated walkway for pedestrians.

But the price tag of Union Station has caused some skepticism, and the Washington Post notes that the cost of Union Station alone equates to about 13 percent of the feds' entire annual surface transportation budget. Supporters say it will bring immense economic benefits to the city and region that vastly exceede the price tag. “This is the place where we should make no small plans,” Boardman said.

The project is pivotal to Amtrak's plans for high-speed rail on Northeast Corridor. A $151 billion improvement plan, announced earlier this month, intends to make high-speed rail on the East Coast a reality by 2040.

That plan -- like Union Station itself -- also lacks all the federal support needed to make it a reality. "You have to have a plan and if you have a plan, the money will follow," Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm told Reuters earlier this month.

Amtrak officials hope to begin construction on the Union Station project in 2015, with an estimated completion date of 2029 if all goes as plan. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray jokingly suggested that timetable may be optimistic. “Let me welcome everyone back in 100 years when this is complete,” he said.

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