Picture an unholy alliance of local government liberals and Federal bureaucrats, then take that to an even more frightening level by factoring in the classic liberal love of public transportation. These cash-burning forces converge at the one city in America that combines the worst excesses of local and Federal government: Washington, D.C.
Recently, a group of city officials, Amtrak management, and a local developer announced a plan to redevelop Washington, D.C.’s iconic Union Station. In presenting the details of the project, they swore that the footprint of the building would remain the same, and the original architecture of the century-old building would remain unchanged. Hmmm. Same footprint. Same architecture. To the casual observer, that might mean they are doing some functional upgrades, for a reasonable price.
Not exactly. Early estimates have the cost at $7 Billion, which works out to about 13 percent of the feds’ entire annual surface transportation budget. And none of the officials had a clue how this mega-project would be funded. Why so expensive? Amtrak plans to triple the capacity of Union Station and transform it into a key hub for Amtrak’s planned high-speed rail efforts in the Northeast Corridor.
The station would employ multiple levels of tracks in order to best make use of its available space. Tracks currently only operate on one level of the facility. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s non-voting congressional representative, says there’s no room for the station to expand beyond its current boundaries. “Of course, that leaves only two directions to go: up and down,” she said. So to triple capacity inside the same shell, the solution is to build multiple levels of tracks by digging straight down.
Of course, nobody knows how the project could actually be funded.
Unsurprisingly, most progressives don’t see that as a problem. Ms. Norton had some words for anyone who might get nervous about the lack of a funding plan for the ambitious project. “That is not realistic, nor is it fair,” Norton said. “That’s not how you fund a plan for the decades.”
Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman seconded that emotion, saying that it’s not reasonable to expect a funding plan to be in place this early in the project’s timeline. He said that 50 percent to 80 percent of the project could be covered by federal funds. Where did he get that figure? Maybe he has an invisible friend in the White House. “Some can come from the states, some from the local city government, some can come from the operators themselves,” he said.
Putting mundane concerns like how to pay for it aside, the proposed plan includes a new train “shed” behind the current station, where passengers will board and depart from trains. Some shed. It’s a swoopy glass-walled structure that appears to be made from liquid money.
To everyone who is familiar with the urban planning cliché of mixed-use downtowns, the rest of this plan will be no surprise. Besides the $7 billion blowout of Union Station itself, the plan is to impose a $1.3 billion project called Burnham Place immediately next door. It features 1.5 million square feet of office space, 100,000 square feet of retail space, 1,300 residential units and 500 hotel rooms. When I was growing up, our house was two blocks from the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. It’s hard to imagine anyone paying a premium to live, shop, work or dine so close to a train station. I hope they’re sound sleepers.
Amtrak officials hope to begin construction on the Union Station project in 2015, with an estimated completion date of 2029 if all goes as planned. In one of the few sensible statements ever made by a Washington D.C. Mayor, Vincent Gray hinted the timetable might be a tad aggressive. “Let me welcome everyone back in 100 years when this is complete,” he said.