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.

New York City’s plastic-bag addiction

On my way home yesterday evening, I ran by the grocery store to pick up a few things. I ended up buying seven items:

The items I bought on my run grocery store.
The items I bought on my run to the grocery store.
  1. A carton of eggs
  2. A 2-pound (1-kilogram) bag of frozen peas
  3. A red pepper
  4. A green pepper
  5. Half and half
  6. Chocolate milk for me
  7. Strawberry milk for my daughter

(The chocolate and strawberry milk were on sale for what I deem an acceptable price, so I thought they would make a nice treat for the end of a long day.)

I normally take a reusable bag to the store with me, but since this was a spur-of-the-moment trip I had no bag on me. How many plastic bags did the checker think I needed to conveniently carry my items home with me? Two? Three? No and nope.

Try six.

That’s right: my seven items were packed into six bags. Let me rephrase that: they were packed into three bags, which were then dutifully double bagged, just like every plastic grocery-store bag in New York City.

That’s the thing: in the five boroughs, virtually every checker at every grocery store double bags everything. Even Trader Joe’s, sometimes regarded as an example of ecoconsciousness because it eschews plastic bags, double bags using paper. It doesn’t matter how large or small the purchase: even a toothbrush will be bagged and that bag placed into another. I guess for fear that the handles on the cheaply-made plastic bags will rip? Or that they’ll dig into your fingers as you’re walking down the street? Both of which are of course a concern with such weighty items as toothbrushes and breakfast cereal.

And they do it no matter the customer or how you got there. I can sort of understand wanting to make sure bags won’t rip or be uncomfortable for people walking some distance. But the grocery store I was at yesterday evening has a large parking lot out in front; chances are I drove. (For the record, I didn’t.) Which makes half a dozen bags for half a dozen items even more ridiculous, when chances are the maximum distance they’ll be carried is from the checkout line to the car and then from the car to the house.

(I will note that another local grocery-store chain, Stop & Shop, recently introduced sturdier plastic bags and no longer double bags items.)

New York City’s recycling rate is an abysmal 15%. Even sprawling, car-dependent, bane-of-the-environment Los Angeles recycles 65% of its garbage.

Fortunately, I’m conscientious with my plastic bags, and they will either be reused or recycled. They will not end up in a landfill or, perhaps worse, on the street. But how many bags in New York City do? As I walk the sometimes trash-strewn streets of this city, it is remarkable how much of the litter consists of plastic grocery bags, used once and then tossed out, where they may remain for the next 500 to 1,000 years. Then again, given this city’s abysmal recycling rate—a mere 15% of our trash is recycled—that’s not too surprising. (Even Los Angeles, a city New Yorkers are keen to look down their noses at as hopelessly sprawling and car-dependent, recycles 65% of its trash.)

Washington, D.C., where I used to live, had a similar problem, and far too many of the bags were ending up in the pollution-choked Anacostia River. So the city decided to do something about it: from 1 January 2010, businesses in the city that sell food or alcohol have been required to charge five cents for every disposable paper or plastic bag a customer receives. The business retains one or two cents, and the remaining three or four cents go to a fund to clean and protect the Anacostia.

After Washington, D.C., instituted a five-cent per-bag fee, the use of disposable bags in the city dropped by at least half.

The results have been remarkable. The fee—a mere nickel per bag—has led to widescale behavioral change throughout the nation’s capital. A recent survey found that 50% to 60% fewer disposable bags are being used, and two-thirds of District residents and businesses report seeing fewer bags as litter. A full four out of five Washingtonians report using fewer bags since the fee was implemented. Small change—in this case, a nickel—can lead to big change.

Which brings me back to the Big Apple—which comes, of course, double bagged. And it’s time to change that.


Photo by Ramin Bahrani/Ars Electronica via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

To secure its voting rights, grant D.C. statehood

Democracy denied

Of course residents of the District of Columbia deserve full voting representation in both houses of Congress. And the best way to achieve this is by making D.C. a state.


After being a proud resident of the District of Columbia for over five years, I have some strong opinions on this issue. I believe that D.C. should have full representation in Congress, meaning proportional representation in the House and two Senators, each with the ability to vote and participate just like any state’s representation in the two chambers.

I believe the most effective way to do this is to grant full statehood to the District of Columbia. Various other methods of giving D.C. representation in Congress have been proposed, of course, but I believe they are all inferior to full statehood for the District. Proposals to give D.C.’s delegate to the House full voting rights on the floor fall short for a number of reasons.

One, in past proposals the delegate’s vote couldn’t be the deciding vote. Well, if it can’t be the deciding vote, then it doesn’t really count anyway.

Two, recent proposals have relied upon making a political deal with Utah in which D.C. and Utah would both receive a representative and the membership of the House would be permanently increased to 437. (As you may know, any official elected from the District would likely be a Democrat, and any official elected from Utah would likely be a Republican, so they would counterbalance each other. Utah also felt slighted by the 2000 census, which awarded an 13th House seat to North Carolina instead of a 4th House seat to Utah. The Census Bureau based this apportionment on fewer than 1,000 people—while not allowing missionaries serving from Utah to be counted as part of Utah’s population. Being from North Carolina, serving a mission and going to college in Utah, and then living in the District, I am one of perhaps a handful of people with a trifold personal connection to this issue.) Now that Utah has been awarded that 4th seat because of the 2010 census, you can be sure that any feelings Utah had that D.C. should receive full representation have dissipated. Beyond that, D.C. should receive full voting rights because it’s the right thing, not as the result of a political deal.

The 630,000 residents of the District of Columbia deserve voting representation in Congress. Granting D.C. statehood is the best way to ensure they receive it—and that it's never taken away.
The 630,000 residents of the District of Columbia deserve voting representation in Congress. Granting D.C. statehood is the best way to ensure they receive it—and that it’s never taken away.

Third, retrocession to Maryland is in no one’s interest. D.C. isn’t interested, Maryland isn’t interested. Solving the issue of D.C. representation by wiping D.C. off the map is clearly not a reasonable solution.

Likewise, the suggestion that D.C. residents who desire congressional representation should move elsewhere is downright offensive. That’s like telling lifelong residents of Detroit that if they want jobs they should move somewhere else, residents of Camden, New Jersey, that if they want adequate police protection they should move somewhere else, or black residents of Jackson, Mississippi, that if they don’t want to suffer racism and discrimination they should move somewhere else.

Fourth, most proposals would grant D.C. full voting rights in only the House. Further, no matter how large D.C. grows, most proposals would limit D.C. to no more representatives than the smallest state has (which for decades has been exactly one). Full representation in Congress means voting representation in both the House and the Senate, with proportional representation in the House and two senators. Beyond that, D.C. has more people than the smallest state, Wyoming, and is within about 100,000 people of the next three smallest states, Alaska, North Dakota, and Vermont. And yet all four of those states enjoy full representation in America’s democracy with one representative and two senators. D.C. deserves the same.

Most opponents to D.C. voting rights call it a constitutional argument. They are really cloaking a very partisan position—the fact that Republicans oppose D.C. voting rights because it would virtually guarantee additional Democratic members of Congress—but let’s take the constitutional argument at face value. If there is anything in the Constitution that is preventing American citizens who pay taxes and serve in the Armed Forces from taking their place at the table of America’s democracy with all other taxpaying, law-abiding, military-serving Americans, then the Constitution should be amended to correct it. I would support a constitutional amendment to guarantee the District of Columbia full voting rights in Congress.

But all that gets me back to my original point: the most effective way to grant D.C. full voting rights is to grant it statehood. And if a constitutional amendment is required to grant D.C. statehood, then so be it. Some would say such an amendment is required because of the “District Clause,” Article I, Section 8, which gives Congress the power “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States ….”

The original reason for creating a separate district for the national capital—so that one state would not have disproportionate sway over the federal government simply because it was the home of the federal government—is not really valid any more. Remember, the crafters of the Constitution were doing something that had never been done before: creating a type of democratic country, a republic, that had never really been tried on so grand a scale. They didn’t know what the results would be, so they included some safeguards to prevent tyranny, corruption, and concentration of power in too few hands or in one place or state—and the District Clause is one of those.

Now, 223 years after the ratification of the Constitution, I think it’s fair to say that the concerns that led to the inclusion of the District Clause are not valid. And neither are the concerns or arguments that continue to deny the residents of the District of Columbia—citizens of the United States—full representation in their national government. A country that stands for freedom and democracy around the world will surely want to ensure that democracy exists to its fullest at home. And after amendments XV, XIX, and XXVI—which extended voting rights to nonwhites, women, and all citizens 18 years and older, respectively—D.C. statehood, and Amendment XXVIII if necessary, is the last constitutional obstacle to ensuring that America’s democracy is alive, vibrant, and open to every American citizen, regardless of where he or she lives.


Cross-posted at Dialann.org.