The $7 Billion Union Station Renovation

A blog about business and economics.
July 31 2012 9:28 PM

The Logic Behind The $7 Billion Washington Union Station Renovation Proposal

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A snazzy new station!

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I had the chance to have a good long conversation today with David Tuchman who’s the project manager for Akridge’s Burnham Place project, which is tied in with the proposed $7 billion overhaul of Washington Union Station. It gave me a much better understanding of what’s being proposed here, why, and how it’s supposed to relate to improved transportation.

The plan comes essentially from the conjunction of two separate issues. One is that way back in 2002, Akridge paid a considerable amount of money for the right to build a platform over a lot of these Union Station tracks. Atop the platform will sit a bunch of buildings, as well as a reconnection of the currently disrupted street grid. That will include a renovation of the existing H Street Bridge, which is currently quite old and in need of some form of replacement.

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The money for all this work is separate from the Master Plan proposal and would all come from Akridge. But once this is done, it will become practically impossible to ever move the Union Station tracks.

Amtrak/MARC/VRE’s contention, however, is that moving the tracks would be highly desirable. Why? Because they want to make the platforms wider. Why do they want to do that? For starters, they say the existing 18 foot platforms aren’t compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act and National Fire Protection Association guidelines for safety. New train stations are normally constructed with platforms in the 25-30 foot width range. The practical transportation capacity issue here is that the current platforms are allegedly too narrow to let passengers be getting on/off of the tracks on both sides of the platform simultaneously. Wider platforms allow for simultaneous boarding allow for greater capacity.

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The re-aligned tracks and re-sized platforms

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But moving the tracks without shutting the station down is difficult. So they want to start by re-activating a pair of tracks on the far west side of the station that are currently blocked by a few structures used for station operations. So the idea is to first remove the structures, then re-activate those tracks, then start piecemeal relocation of tracks and widening of platforms.

Except to move the tracks you need to remove the garage that’s currently sitting above part of them since the new track locations would conflict with where the existing pillars are.

Once you’re removing the garage, it seems like it would make sense to permanently eliminate the weird eyesore and shift it underground. And once you’re digging a cavern beneath the existing tracks it makes sense to add some underground concourses. Those will allow people to get on/off the trains with less platform walking, and will also allow Union Station to be open on more sides giving the neighborhood more access to the station.

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The extra concourses to improve passenger mobility

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Last and basically least, as long as the garage is gone why not replace it with a cool-looking train shed that will make the whole station attractive and appealing?

So that is how you get a mega-project. The issue isn’t that Akridge’s development requires a $7 billion overhaul of Union Station. But if Akridge’s development goes through, there’ll be no more opportunity to overhaul the tracks. And Amtrak, MARC, and VRE want to overhaul the tracks to increase platform width. And once you’re mucking with the tracks, you have to remove the garage. The garage is a key revenue center for the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation so they’ll want to put it someplace else. And once you’re building a cavern, the logic of putting a bunch of stuff in it looks compelling.

At least it looks like a compelling thing to ask for money to do. But obviously that’s the huge blank spot here. Amtrak is the lead actor on the project because it’s Amtrak’s tracks. But MARC is the main client of Union Station. VRE is much smaller, but also uses the station. Akridge’s development is more valuable with a nicer station and new north-facing exits. US DOT owns Union Station, and the USRC operates it. The whole thing is in the District of Columbia. So the question “is this worth it” has to be asked to a bunch of different entities and it’s not clear what any given entity would be asked to contribute.

But the logic of an awful lot of this loops back to the contention that widening the platforms is highly desirable as a means of increasing train capacity. My instinct is to be skeptical of this claim, but I’m not an expert and I wasn’t really talking to the right guy to dig in on this so more later.

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