Grand plans for D.C.’s grand station

A rendering of what Union Station's train shed may look like someday if ambitious plans to redevelop the station and the surrounding neighborhood come to fruition.
A rendering of what Union Station’s train shed may look like someday if ambitious plans to redevelop the station and the surrounding neighborhood come to fruition.

In an extensive online piece with several interactive features, The Washington Post‘s Steven Pearlstein examines ambitious plans to remake and expand Washington Union Station and the surrounding neighborhood. The master plan calls for a new passenger experience on expanded tracks and platforms within a massive development project that stitches back together an urban fabric split by Union Station’s rail yard for more than a century—at a cost of $10 billion or more over 25 years or longer. There will undoubtedly be, as Mr. Pearlstein explains, significant financial and political hurdles to overcome.

Nobody thinks we’d be better off today if government had not borrowed the money to build the Beltway, or the subway system or Dulles International Airport. It would be yet another symptom of today’s cramped political vision—and our false notion of economy—if we fail to make a similarly bold investment in the expansion and redevelopment of Union Station.

While most of the piece is solid, I find Mr. Pearlstein’s repeated references to Grand Central Terminal here in New York to be a bit of a stretch. Can Union Station be to D.C. what Grand Central is to NYC? Better yet, would we want it to be? Clearly there are many similarities: a grand Beaux Arts station in the heart of one of America’s great cities, used not only by commuters but a tourist and shopping destination in its own right, saved from neglect and outright destruction in the 1970s.

But if Washingtonians are expecting to recreate Grand Central in their city, there are significant differences that shouldn’t be overlooked. First is the sheer number of travelers who pass through Grand Central each year: 82 million. It has even more passengers today than it had during the “golden age” of train travel, when travel through the terminal peaked at 65 million in 1947. Compare that to Union Station’s 14 million annual passengers currently, or even 30 years from now when ridership is expected to triple to 42 million (and Grand Central’s ridership has increased to 115 million or more with the coming of the Long Island Rail Road).

It speaks to the paucity of our civic imagination, and the small-mindedness of our politics, that simply to describe a project of such ambition is to invite the knowing smirks and raised eyebrows of those who will immediately recognize it as wholly incompatible with the current political and budgetary environment.

Second is the state of the development around each station. Grand Central’s predecessors, as Mr. Pearlstein notes, were built on the edge of what was then New York City, mostly open farmland and fields that were ripe for development. By the time the current iteration of Grand Central was completed in 1913, New York was on the cusp of a massive building boom of skyscrapers; one which was the tallest in the world for a short time, the Chrysler Building, was even constructed directly across Lexington Avenue from the terminal and connected to it by an underground passage. Today, New York City is working on a massive “upzoning” around the terminal, which will increase the amount of office space—and building heights—within walking distance of the station, to take advantage of the coming East Side Access and rising property values. The area surrounding Union Station, on the other hand, while ready for redevelopment, isn’t on the city’s edge: it’s a mere four blocks from the Capitol at the very heart of the city. And not only is it hemmed in on the sides, but thanks to the Height of Buildings Act it’s also hemmed in on the top, limiting the area’s potential.

While Mr. Pearlstein would have you believe that travelers at Grand Central have a superior passenger experience, I wouldn’t be so sure. While there are many shops and amenities for travelers, perhaps the key difference lies in the platforms themselves: all of Grand Central’s 44 platforms lie underground, sweltering and stuffy in the summer and unsightly all year round. Trains enter and leave the terminal through the Park Avenue tunnel that stretches nearly 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) all the way to 97th Street. Though I have taken the train to and from Grand Central on a number of occasions, I can’t imagine beginning and ending my commute this way on a daily basis. While Union Station’s current platforms are even worse—whoever came up with the idea of putting a low roof over tracks served by diesel locomotives clearly wasn’t thinking straight (probably the result of breathing in diesel exhaust)—the proposed atrium-like train shed, filled with natural light, will be an entirely different—and far superior—experience for those traveling through Union Station.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.

Metro, the D.C. area’s subway system, has its own grand plans for Union Station. A “superstation” has been proposed at Union Station, connected to a larger “inner loop” of stations and tracks encircling central Washington and providing the Metro system with much-needed capacity at its core. Combined with Amtrak, Maryland’s MARC trains, Virginia’s VRE commuter rail, and the intercity bus depot that was recently relocated and consolidated at Union Station, D.C.’s grand station could provide multimodal access to the city, the region, and beyond that Grand Central just can’t accommodate. While the arrival of the much-delayed and over-budget East Side Access, which will bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Grand Central, will be a boon to the station and travelers in the region, there is little that can be done to expand subway service under the terminal, and those wishing to take the subway from Grand Central will find cramped underground stations for decades to come. (The planned Second Avenue subway, which should relieve the overcrowded 4/5/6 line that passes under Grand Central, will pass three blocks to the east. If it ever makes it to 42nd Street.)

But the real obstacles to any visionary plan for Union Station are financial and political. Mr. Pearlstein writes:

It speaks to the paucity of our civic imagination, and the small-mindedness of our politics, that simply to describe a project of such ambition is to invite the knowing smirks and raised eyebrows of those who will immediately recognize it as wholly incompatible with the current political and budgetary environment. It’s hard to imagine a project more likely to raise the tea party’s hackles than having federal and state taxpayers borrow billions of dollars to increase subsidized train service in and out of Washington.

In closing, Mr. Pearlstein admonishes: “Nobody thinks we’d be better off today if government had not borrowed the money to build the Beltway, or the subway system or Dulles International Airport. It would be yet another symptom of today’s cramped political vision—and our false notion of economy—if we fail to make a similarly bold investment in the expansion and redevelopment of Union Station.”

I’m reminded of the timeless advice of Daniel Burnham, one of America’s greatest city planners: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”

America’s capital needs grand plans and the visionary leadership needed to make them happen. And we shouldn’t let money and ideology stand in the way.

Read more
Reimagining Union Station
by Steven Pearlstein
The Washington Post, 12 September 2014


I will note one small error Mr. Pearlstein made in his piece. He writes, “The majestic main concourse was 275 feet long and 120 feet wide, flanked on both ends by grand marble staircases, underneath a massive concave ceiling on which was painted the constellations of the stars.” The main concourse originally had only one marble staircase; the East Staircase, though part of the original plans, was completed in 1998.

I will also note my personal affection for and connection to Union Station: it was where my now wife and I went on our first date in 2007.

Debunking myths about cross-country train travel

Apparently there are myths about cross-country train travel that need to be debunked. Fortunately, someone has:

Riding Amtrak Cross-Country: 6 Myths Debunked

If you follow this blog, you’ll know that my family and I love overnight trips in the sleeper cars. And riding the entire Amtrak system is on my bucket list.


Photo
Amtrak’s Auto Train, an overnight train with sleeper service (and, according to Amtrak, the longest regularly-scheduled passenger train in the world), passes through Folkston, Georgia.
By Gene Bowker via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0