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Federal agency to revise design for Union Station overhaul, criticized for being too focused on cars

A rendering that private developer Akridge unveiled of a pickup and drop-off area at the proposed new train hall at Union Station. The FRA didn’t include the underground option in the preliminary design recommendation. (Akridge and Shalom Baranes Associates)

The Federal Railroad Administration has temporarily halted its analysis of the proposed redevelopment of Union Station to revise key parts of the plan, particularly a controversial parking garage planned as part of the overhaul.

Amtrak and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation (USRC), the two proponents of a multibillion-dollar expansion of the rail station, confirmed a delay in the federal review, saying the pause is related to amending key aspects of the project that were widely criticized as keeping the station too car-centric.

“After FRA received the public comments in the fall and had a chance to review, they determined that there was an opportunity to work collaboratively with everybody to produce an alternative that would have broad support,” said Gretchen Kostura, Amtrak’s senior program manager at Union Station. “That’s where we are right now.”

It’s not clear whether the new presidential administration or criticism from officials prompted the FRA to change course. Those familiar with the project say it might have been a combination of factors.

The pause is expected to add at least several months to the planning phase of remaking the District’s busiest transit hub. Still, city leaders, civic groups and neighbors embraced the development as a positive step to rectify what they consider to be design flaws.

“We get one shot at getting a major transit hub in the heart of the District of Columbia right,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who opposed the FRA’s initial plan to build a six-story parking garage at the station.

Pressure mounts on federal agency over Union Station redevelopment. Critics say plan is too focused on cars.

The proposed expansion of Union Station — a $10 billion private and public investment — envisions a transformation by 2040. It would add concourses and tracks, broaden retail options, add a two-level bus facility with up to 40 bus slips and direct pickup and drop-off areas in front of a new train hall and at two other entrances.

A replacement parking garage with nearly 1,600 spaces would be attached to the station, according to the preliminary design the FRA pushed in a draft environmental impact statement. The federal agency is leading the federal review of the expansion project.

D.C. elected officials and residents, with the support of Amtrak, have called on the FRA to consider downsizing the parking and improve vehicular and bus access to the station.

The multilevel parking structure is counter to the city’s efforts to reduce automobile travel, city leaders said, arguing the design is too focused on cars, lacks good pedestrian and bike connections, and fails to provide adequate access for vehicles dropping off and picking up travelers. Among those who sent strong rebukes to the federal agency are Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).

Norton sent a letter dated Feb. 5 to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, pressuring him to direct the FRA to work with the city to “substantially revise” the original proposal.

The USRC board, in a November letter to the FRA, said it supports moving the parking facility and pickup and drop-off location underground. It also is pushing for downgrading the bus terminal to a single story, saying those changes “could well suit the future needs of the Station, while allowing for additional commercial development.”

Amtrak and the USRC are working with the FRA to refine the proposal, including looking at reducing parking and moving it underground, which could add millions to the project's budget.

The FRA estimated the revised process would add several months to the project.

“We look forward to sharing the results of this work with you when it is further advanced,” the agency said in a statement.

The agency has released few other details about the timeline of the project. A final recommendation on how to proceed initially was expected this year, bringing it closer to construction. Officials familiar with the process said that decision is now likely to come next year.

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

Although revising the proposal could lengthen the planning process, some local officials said it could save the project from setbacks during the permitting process due to local opposition. Getting the FRA in alignment with the city and neighbors could more quickly move the project from planning to construction.

Allen, who represents the area, urged the FRA to work closely with city agencies and neighborhood leaders to develop a design that matches the District's planning goals, doesn't induce snarling traffic and delivers a grand station that will last a century.

“Union Station should be an accessible public space for regional and national travelers, but it also needs to fit into a neighborhood,” Allen said. “If there's too much priority and emphasis given to getting cars in and out, you'll get more of the same: an island cut off from the surrounding area by busy, noisy streets.”

Anthony Williams, chief executive of the Federal City Council, a private nonprofit business group, said the station redevelopment — along with a separate $2 billion private development planned in the airspace above the train tracks — represent the greatest transportation and economic development project in the region.

“These improvements will dramatically expand ridership capacity, improve the station’s accessibility, enhance passenger safety, create more than 55,000 jobs, and provide place making benefits to an area of the city that has historically served as a major barrier,” said Williams, a former District mayor.

In crisis, Amtrak is focused on testing and training for new trains to debut in 2021

But for the project to be successful, he said, it needs to have the full support of its neighbors. Williams said it was clear from the feedback received that there were weaknesses in the proposed design.

Kostura, at Amtrak, said the railroad is also encouraged by the FRA’s decision to rethink the plan.

“We view this as a very positive step forward and ultimately producing a [plan] that has broad support and is very forward thinking to the future of the station, the Northeast Corridor, and also what's needed within the city,” she said.

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