The Future of Union Station is Being Decided Now

DC Councilmember Offers His Views

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Union Station is due for a major overhaul and expansion to prepare for growth over its next century of service in the District of Columbia. The debate on what we should build is happening right now, and, unfortunately, the federal agencies leading the planning so far haven’t shown they are taking local concerns seriously.

Pre-pandemic, Union Station was the second busiest rail station in America and served as a gateway into the District for more than 40 million people each year – far more people annually than DCA, IAD, or BWI. The soaring main hall welcomes residents and guests alike with grandeur, connecting the past to the present.

Still, if Union Station is DC’s secret transit hub, it is only a secret because the station has become utterly forgettable. It is badly in need of an upgrade. It is isolated from the surrounding neighborhoods. Rarely does one go for a walk to or around Union Station if you aren’t traveling, an obvious problem for the retailers inside the station. During commute hours and even minor events, it is a nightmare for traffic. While in theory it connects to the Streetcar and H Street, the walk is confusing, intimidating, and long, a deterrence for many would-be riders. The parking garage occupies nearly as much space as the concourse, and its entrance from H Street renders multiple blocks in the heart of the District completely useless aside from four busy lanes of traffic.

The planned redesign will triple the train capacity, broaden the platforms, expand bus capacity, and dramatically offer a brighter concourse with expanding retail options. This planned redesign is coming at a critical moment as we plan for a future where we absolutely have to reduce our carbon footprint while being innovative with our transit options.

Proposed massing of Union Station, preferred Alternative A-C. From Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Available: https://railroads.dot.gov/
Proposed pedestrian changes at front of Union Station, preferred Alternative A-C. From Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Available: https://railroads.dot.gov/

What has been proposed thus far by the Federal Railway Administration has been shockingly short-sighted. Worse still, it seems to outright ignore the voice of the community. The proposed design, even after revisions following significant pushback, includes and dedicates significant space to 1,600 parking spaces in an above ground garage. That’s far too many parking spaces – far more than Amtrak has included in other recent station redevelopments when it is in charge. The District’s Office of Planning has recommended less than 300 spaces.

These aren’t small differences in the final product – these are foundational decisions on Union Station’s footprint within the neighborhood. Today, Union Station is an island surrounded by oceans of asphalt, equally uninviting and dangerous. When you are planning for thousands of cars versus hundreds, the surrounding urban environment will be built for all of those cars. That means more noise and pollution, and less common spaces and narrower sidewalks. It’s a major limitation on how the District can design the areas surrounding the new Union Station.

As a quick aside, you might assume 1,600 parking spots is just part of running a busy train station. Not quite. Roughly two-thirds of the 2,200 current parking spots are used by monthly users. Parking makes up around 70% of the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation’s revenue, but it’s certainly capable of updating its business model. In fact, creating more vibrant street-level retail is one way to provide new streams of revenue and build that vibrant space connected to the surrounding neighborhood we are envisioning. Remember, Amtrak and retail needs right now are somewhere around 400 spots at most.

Over several budget cycles, working with Council Chair Phil Mendelson, I’ve secured more than $200 million to overhaul the Hopscotch bridge, part of aligning the bridge with the future new tracks below, as well as re-envisioning that entire section of Ward 6 to connect the neighborhoods to the north with Union Station. I’m not doing it on my own. This is the result of years of hard work not only by the Council, but by neighborhood leaders serving on the ANC, and Mayor Bowser and her team.

There are inspired proposals that have enormous potential for what tomorrow’s Union Station could be. Union Station is one of our city’s greatest public spaces – used by everyone. It is a space that embodies our highest ideals even as it represents some of our most pressing challenges. In the coming year, we will likely make decisions on how to spend upwards of $8 billion on this project overall – decisions we will ask future Washingtonians to live with for the next century at least. Those entrusted with decision-making authority must listen to the voices of the neighbors and people who will ultimately breathe life into the next iteration of Union Station.

Let’s get it right and build for what our future will need to be, not what our present is.

Charles Allen (D) is the councilmember representing Ward 6. For more information on Allen, visit www.charlesallenward6.com.