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D.C. at odds with federal government over multibillion-dollar redevelopment of Union Station

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/31/2020 Luz Lazo
a group of people on a train track near a fence: An employee heads to work at Union Station on June 1 in Washington. © Katherine Frey/The Washington Post An employee heads to work at Union Station on June 1 in Washington.

D.C. leaders are at odds with federal officials over key parts of a multibillion-dollar plan to remake Union Station into a new commercial hub and transportation anchor for the region’s economy.

Under proposed plans, by 2040, the train station would be transformed into a world-class, multimodal transit hub with wide, spacious platforms, a new train hall with natural light, and modern concourses lined with shops and restaurants providing easy access to Metro, buses, taxis, ride-shares, streetcars and parking.

In all, the project would involve about $10 billion in public and private investment.

But city officials are in a dispute with the Federal Railroad Administration over a preliminary design being pushed by the FRA in a draft environmental impact statement released this summer. D.C. officials say the federal design “falls short” of the city’s vision for the Union Station of the future.

The District says the federal plan is too car-centric, lacks good pedestrian and bike connections and fails to provide adequate circulation and access, which would lead to gridlock on city streets. Chief among the concerns is the FRA’s preference for keeping a multilevel parking garage in the station complex, despite evidence that passengers and most station visitors don’t get there by personal vehicle.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), the D.C. Council and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), backed by neighborhood commissioners and residents, have rallied against the FRA’s endorsed parking plan, saying that the station’s redevelopment is an opportunity to reshape the city’s transportation infrastructure.

“We are building a station for the next century. That means leaning on clean technology and focusing on robust public transit,” said Drew Courtney, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission who represents neighborhoods adjacent to Union Station.

“If we build all these parking spaces, people will be inclined to drive, and that means more traffic, more collisions, more pollution, and that will be a real problem for our neighborhoods, for the District and for the region as a whole,” Courtney said. “It will send a clear message that this is a destination that should be driven to and from by car like a suburban shopping mall.”

[Criticism mounts over proposed parking in Union Station’s $8 billion overhaul] a sign on the side of a building: People walk through Union Station on April 24. © Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images People walk through Union Station on April 24.

Bowser, in a Sept. 28 letter to the FRA, said the ongoing federal review process should ensure improvements in rail and intermodal transportation as well as create “a best-in-class urban anchor.”

The concept the FRA is pushing, the mayor wrote, “does not present this vision. Instead, it is built on outdated 20th century ideals and approaches, including an unnecessary emphasis on single-occupancy vehicles and their storage.”

The FRA, which owns Union Station and is leading the federal review of the project, said in a statement that it “is considering the views of local officials” as it moves to complete the environmental review, which lays out a project’s impacts and outlines its design.

The agency said it considered the District’s recommendation to reduce parking to under 300 spaces but determined “the best information currently available does not warrant a further reduction of the Project’s parking program at this time.”

A complete overhaul

The expansion, a concept announced in 2012, would be one of the region’s most important development initiatives since the Metro system was built. It promises a complete overhaul of the station — the second-busiest in the country after New York’s Penn Station. Many of its facilities date back to the station’s 1907 opening.

The overhaul would triple passenger capacity and transform the station into a hub for high-speed rail.

With as many as 40 million visitors annually — more than each of the three airports serving the Washington region — Union Station is not adequate to accommodate existing passenger needs, according to FRA documents. The station is the Washington region’s busiest transit hub, connecting Amtrak, Metro, Virginia Railway Express, Maryland MARC commuter trains and intercity and local buses.

Projected growth for Amtrak and the commuter rail services will push the station beyond its capacity unless investments are made to accommodate the growth, the FRA said.

The overhaul will “improve capacity, reliability, safety, efficiency, accessibility, and security, for both current and future long-term railroad operations at this historic station,” the federal agency said.

[Virginia’s $3.7 billion rail plan called a ‘game changer.’ Here’s what we know about it.]

The project is proposed by Amtrak and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, which manages and operates Union Station under a long-term lease from the FRA. Amtrak says the redevelopment is critical to passenger rail service growth in the Northeast, its busiest corridor. Parking is not essential to its operations at Union Station, the railroad said.

The project concept includes full reconstruction of tracks and platforms, new concourses, an east-west train hall, a two-level bus facility with up to 40 bus slips, pickup and drop-off areas in front of the new train hall and at two other entrances, and a 1,600-space parking garage above a newly built bus facility.

This plan involves the least excavation of all options the FRA considered, some of which included below-ground parking. It also is the least expensive at an estimated $5.8 billion and would take up to 11½ years to complete.

Once the project is approved and financing secured, construction would proceed east to west, and be done in phases. During each phase, a set number of tracks would be taken out of service. The station would remain open and usable.

The project also will allow for a separate private development in the airspace above the train tracks. Developer Akridge is planning a $2 billion project that will add up to a dozen buildings along 14 acres of air rights it owns from north of Union Station to K Street NE. Construction of that project is contingent upon the station redevelopment.

Akridge recently unveiled renderings featuring a transformed station, modern and well-lit concourses, plazas and parks where passengers would mingle, and an underground pickup and drop-off area connecting to the new station — a feature that is missing from the FRA plan.

a view of a building: A below-grade pickup and drop-off facility rendering for Union Station. © Akridge and Shalom Baranes Associates A below-grade pickup and drop-off facility rendering for Union Station.

“All of this is achievable,” Akridge President and Chief Executive Matt Klein said. The company supports the city’s position for less parking, dedicated space for ground transportation and improved urban design.

Union Station can be “this great gateway to the District for those people who take the bus and train into the nation’s capital,” Klein said. “But we only get one shot at it.”

[Business group kicks off effort to unify the greater Washington region’s passenger rail network]

Clashes over parking

City officials have criticized the FRA’s decision to preserve more parking as a way to retain a lucrative revenue stream. The parking garage is the primary source of revenue for the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, according to FRA documents.

The FRA says its project concept would add additional retail, commercial and station uses to generate revenue to maintain the station’s economic viability. The plan also keeps a parking revenue stream while significantly reducing the number of parking spaces to 1,600 — about one-third fewer than what is now available.

According to a recent report by the National Capital Planning Commission, nearly 1,400 of the 2,200 parking spots available at the Union Station garage are used by monthly parkers, meaning the parking isn’t serving train riders or people frequenting the terminal’s retail stores.

Most of Amtrak’s passengers access the station using other transportation modes, Amtrak told the FRA earlier this year, adding that the planned parking targeted for Amtrak customers is “over planned,” and the railroad supports scaling it back.

“We do not assume that parking will increase proportionally as rail ridership increases,” the company said. Besides, Amtrak said, the considerable period when there is no parking available during construction will probably lead passengers to find alternative ways to access the station.

[Railroads near full implementation of lifesaving automatic-braking technology] a group of people in a room: Akridge’s rendering of a bus station at Union Station. © Akridge and Shalom Baranes Associates Akridge’s rendering of a bus station at Union Station.

The public comment period on that draft environmental impact statement closed in September, and the FRA is expected to release a final recommendation next year, bringing the project closer to construction. Details about the project’s design would then need to be approved by the National Capital Planning Commission, which has zoning oversight of the project.

The National Capital Planning Commission has also asked the FRA to revise or update the proposal to include a parking program that “substantially reduces parking.”

Disagreements over the project design, including parking, could add years of delays to the project. The federal review timeline has stalled for months, adding more time for the community to comment this summer.

Besides parking, city leaders have found other flaws with the FRA plan.

In comments to the FRA in September, D.C. Planning Director Andrew Trueblood said the project as proposed “appears to be on a path to failure.” He listed concerns in six areas, including parking, urban design, pickup and drop-off, and circulation and access to the station. He said the federal agency should consider “the placement and scale of the parking garage and its potential impact on future open space activation, connectivity, vibrancy and character” of the community.

The D.C. Office of Planning has also asked the FRA to consider a dedicated space for pickups and drop-off above or below ground to alleviate traffic impacts and improve the experience of travelers connecting to taxis and ride-shares. The current plan distributes pickup and drop-off traffic along different entrances at the station, which officials said will continue to create queuing on city streets.

a group of people in front of a building: Akridge’s rendering for an expanded station as viewed from H Street NE. © Akridge and Shalom Baranes Associates Akridge’s rendering for an expanded station as viewed from H Street NE.

In an interview, Trueblood said the plan needs to have more emphasis on building pedestrian-friendly connections and should give greater consideration to the quality of the future station’s urban design and its surroundings.

“This isn’t an airport that you build out in a green field somewhere and you can build acres of parking,” he said. “Union Station was built about 100 years ago, and this upgrade will last 100 more years, so it is in all of our interests to get it right.”

Read more: Maryland and Virginia drivers owe D.C. more than $370 million in outstanding traffic and parking fines House Republicans push inquiry into Biden’s use of Amtrak on trip through Ohio and Pennsylvania Amtrak warns an additional 2,400 jobs will be cut without more federal aid
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