Amtrak's Insane $7 Billion Plan for Union Station Renovations

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
July 27 2012 7:52 AM

Amtrak's Insane $7 Billion Plan for Union Station Renovations

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Courtesy Amtrak.

Earlier in July, Amtrak came out with a baffling $151 billion plan to bring true high-speed rail to the Northeast Corridor even though you could get service that's almost as good for less than $20 billion by investing in new rolling stock, completing a handful of the highest-value projects Amtrak's already identified, and investing a little time in better coordination with commuter rail networks. So how did they come up with such a bloated figure? It's by folding high-cost, low-value projects into the overall vision. This superfluous but incredibly costly Philadelphia tunneling plan is one example, and another is the proposed $7 billion renovation of Union Station in Washington they unveiled a detailed version of earlier this week.

As a Washington resident, I'd obviously be thrilled with someone giving Amtrak the money to waste on this. But it's an amazingly costly project. In the project text they compare it to Berlin Haupbanhof, which only cost 700 million euros, and to St. Pancras in London, which cost 800 million pounds. Why should it cost many multiples of that to renovate a train station in America?

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On one level, I just don't know. Transportation infrastructure projects of all kinds in the United States suffer from oddly higher construction costs than projects in Europe. But from the look of Amtrak's proposal in addition to the high unit costs problem, there seems to be an awful lot of emphasis on doing stuff that has no really clear operational benefits. For example, they don't like the fact that right now Union Station's existing platforms have unsightly and inconvenient columns in the middle of them. To get rid of the columns, they need to scrap the 2,000-space parking deck that they're supporting. Then they want to replace the parking deck with a 5,000-space four-level underground garage. That's an awful lot of money to spend on something that has minimal operational value from the standpoint of actually operating a railroad.

The subtext to this particular garage element, I think, is that separate from the station renovation project, Akridge has purchased the rights to deck over some of the track north of the station for real estate development purporses. The existing parking deck, meanwhile, is extremely ugly. So there'd be a lot of value to Akridge removing the deck, replacing it with a very expensive underground parking solution, and then building a snazzy looking glass-and-steel concourse where the existing parking deck is. Meanwhile the city would get thousands of construction jobs, local politicians would get an iconic new structure, the VRE and MARC commuter rail lines would be excused from needing to better coordinate their operations, and the expanded station could incorporate even more shopping mall features than the existing ones.

Much less exciting than this would be to spend about half as much money replacing the B&P Tunnel outside Baltimore and bringing constant tension catenary technology to the entirety of the D.C.-New York line. But if we did that, trains could actually go much faster!

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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