The Harry S. Truman Union Station? Senators want to rename D.C.’s train hub.


Union Station (Jeffrey MacMillan/The Washington Post)

Updated 4:12 p.m.

Ronald Reagan's name is already on the name of a local airport, so why not also name the train station for a former president?

That's what Missouri Sens. Claire McCaskill (D) and Roy Blunt (R) hope to do as they introduced a measure Thursday that would rename Washington's Union Station for former president Harry S. Truman. The bill's introduction is timed to Truman's 130th birthday, which is today.

The proposal to rename the District's main train hub for an out-of-town resident might bring pause to some locals. On Thursday afternoon, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who has taken pains to fight Congress for greater budget and governing autonomy, issued a statement saying the District ought to have some say. "Any name change should be made in collaboration and consultation with the residents and government of the District of Columbia," he said.

But Union Station is owned by the federal government, so Congress has the right to name the station whatever it wants. McCaskill and Blunt both serve on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has jurisdiction over such proposals.

So why name Union Station for Truman? The senators noted that the station once housed U.S. Car No. 1, or the presidential rail car, which Truman used for his  "whistle-stop campaign" tour, which started and ended at Union Station. Once Truman left town in 1953, he departed Washington from Union Station by train, and 5,000 people showed up to say goodbye, according to the senators.

The proposal is an especially important one for McCaskill, whose office is decorated with a Truman bust, photos of the late president and even a "The Buck Stops Here" name plate on her desk. She said Thursday that she wanted to give Truman the honor because while several sites in Washington are named for former presidents, nothing is named for Truman. "I hear Republicans all the time comparing themselves to Harry Truman. So I figured, with so many people wanting to grab Harry Truman’s mantle, this could turn into a great bipartisan effort," she said.

Despite McCaskill's suggestion, the main building housing the State Department in Washington is named for Truman.

McCaskill credited the former president for a "plain-spoken and straight-forward" approach. "He wasn’t concerned about his approval ratings. He recognized Israel, he integrated the armed services. When he integrated the armed services it was a terribly unpopular thing to do but it was the right thing to do and he didn’t care what the approval ratings said," she said.

Acknowledging that some critics might be concerned about naming the train station for the first U.S. president to order the use of an atomic bomb, McCaskill said, "He saved thousands of lives by making that decision, it was a very difficult decision it was obviously horrific that that happened, but I think most historians would weigh in and say that the decision was made to save lives, not take lives."

The sprawling train station houses roughly 140 shops and restaurants and is in the midst of a $35 million renovation that will reposition its merchant mix with a concentration on food options -- a big need in an area of town near famous landmarks but devoid of affordable eating options for tourists. The station has also become a major bus hub and is home to one  of the Metro system's most well-used subway stops.

In 2012, Amtrak proposed a $7 billion expansion of the station that it said could triple passenger capacity and transform the overcrowded station into a high-speed rail hub.

More recent renovations include repairs of damage caused by the 2011 earthquake and the addition of new stores such as H&M. But the station and its manager, the Union Station Redevelopment Corp., have not always enjoyed sound financial footing.

The nonprofit USRC sued the city in 2011 over a tax dispute, and, last month, an audit by the Department of Transportation's inspector general found that a USRC maintenance fund was in danger of facing a $5 million shortfall by this fall.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), who requested the audit, said it showed that USRC "has many major problems for which solutions have not been developed."

Beverley Swaim-Staley, president and chief executive of USRC, said the capital maintenance fund was just one source of revenue for the organization and that the shortfall resulted from a long-term lease USRC had signed years before.

“It’s easy now to say, 'wow, it’s a very successful retail space, and it’s a hot neighborhood,' but that’s not what it was when the lease was signed," she said when the report came out.

Swaim-Staley declined to comment on the name proposal on Thursday. "Since the building is owned by USDOT, it is really a discussion for them," she said in an e-mail.

Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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