As Chicago considers rail hub upgrades, Washington, D.C. offers advice from the success of its Union Station

March 31, 2012

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Chicago’s Union Station is old, storied and surprisingly busy. Completed in 1925 on the site of some of the city’s earliest train stations, the rail hub is the third busiest in the country: According to one estimate, in 2009 it clocked in nearly 31.6 million Metra and Amtrak passenger trips, dwarfing the 8.5 million trips by plane at Midway Airport that same year.

But the vitality of this commuter rail hub is undermined by a few distinct problems. It’s not just things like train emissions (in February, Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin called on the new owners of the old post office, which is adjacent to the station, to fix ventilation systems that were contributing to the buildup of noxious train fumes). There are bigger structural problems, too.  

The station is congested and near capacity. And with corporations like Sarah Lee relocating a portion of its headquarters downtown, commuting demands are expected to grow. Congestion already results in what Luann Hamilton, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, calls “street conflicts.” Cabs, private shuttles, pedestrians and cyclists all jockey for street and sidewalk space outside the station, especially since the taxi courts there were shut down after 9/11. More passengers won’t help, especially since Union is not what planners call a fully integrated station: You have to leave the building to make connections with CTA trains or buses, which is less efficient for travelers.

The city has long been aware of these problems, and issued a master plan study in 2011 with a list of proposed changes. Officials hope to expand the station’s capacity by transforming old baggage platforms into pedestrian platforms, building an off-street CTA bus terminal, launching bus rapid transit service between Union Station and Navy Pier and reconfiguring Canal Street to ease conflicts between pedestrians, motorists and cyclists.  

Sounds good to many, but some critics see these promises echoed among other pie-in-the-sky renovation visions the city has touted for Union Station over the years. For example, after this latest plan was announced, the Tribune’s John Hilkevitch wrote: “Extravagant proposals to transform Union Station … from a 1920s passenger depot into a modern transportation center have come and gone like passing trains.”

He continued:

Chicago-area residents who have been around awhile have heard those unfulfilled promises before. Remember architect Helmut Jahn's proposal for a separate high-speed rail station east of the old post office? Or the original Daniel Burnham proposal for Union Station with an office tower? Union Station has seen more deconstruction, like the demolition of the original concourse building in 1968.

So how can the city make sure it gets it right this time? For starters, it’s looking to other municipalities with thriving transportation hubs. CDOT’s Hamilton cites Atlanta, San Francisco and Denver among the cities Chicago is looking to for examples.  

Earlier this month CDOT officials also heard advice from Washington, D.C., about what is working at its Union Station. At an event sponsored by the Metropolitan Planning Council, Tom Downs, who served as Amtrak’s president from 1993 to ’98 and now sits on the D.C. Metro’s Board of Directors, touted the success of renovation efforts at the District’s rail hub.  

Downs describes himself as “a believer” in the power of public transit, and says that improvements in D.C. have made Union Station a destination, not just a throughway, and have sparked lucrative development projects in neighborhoods surrounding the station.  

During his talk, Downs cited Chicago’s history as the country’s main transportation hub, and emphasized the importance of getting these questions right. In the audio above, you can hear him explain what he thinks Chicago has going for it when it comes to fixing problems at Union Station, what it has working against it and what the city can do about it.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Tom Downs spoke at an event presented by the Metropolitan Planning Council in March. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

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