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Union Station overhaul removes parking spaces, adds underground facility

The proposed expansion of Union Station envisions a transformation of the nation’s second-largest rail hub by 2040

A traveler at Union Station. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The Federal Railroad Administration has revised key aspects of the proposed redevelopment of Washington’s Union Station, eliminating a parking garage as part of the overhaul.

The revised plan for the multibillion-dollar expansion of the station eliminates a six-story garage, significantly reducing parking and relocating the parking area to a new underground facility that also would serve as a location for passenger pickups and drop-offs. The new details were unveiled at a recent meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission.

The changes also include a major reconfiguration of the station’s bus terminal to align with a new train hall, the Federal Railroad Administration confirmed this week.

The changes come more than a year after the FRA put its environmental review for the project on pause to amend the design, which was widely criticized as keeping the station too car-centric. The revisions are a win for the District, which rebuked the design favored by the federal agency as falling short of the city’s vision for Union Station.

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Few details of the revisions have been made available, but the FRA is expected to unveil the plan in the coming weeks. The agency said the revised plan is the result of two years of work in collaboration with project proponents Amtrak and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, which manages and operates Union Station.

The proposed expansion of Union Station — a $10 billion private and public investment — envisions a transformation of the nation’s second-largest rail hub by 2040. The project would add a new train hall and concourses, as well as tracks and retail options.

“With these retained core elements and new modifications, the project is on much stronger footing to make progress in 2022 and beyond,” the FRA said in a statement.

The agency is leading the federal review of the project, which is at least two years behind schedule. The revised plan could be released this summer for public comment, with a final decision next year. After that, the project could enter the design phase, possibly followed by more than a decade of construction.

The new changes respond to criticism from federal planners, District officials and nearby residents who said the FRA’s preferred construction option — unveiled two years ago as part of a draft environmental impact statement — was too focused on cars, lacked good pedestrian and bike connections, and failed to provide adequate access. Residents and city leaders asked for less parking and better management of vehicle traffic, including dedicated space for taxi and ride-hailing services.

Project officials for months have hinted at a resolution that responded to the concerns. Beverley Swaim-Staley, president and chief executive of the USRC, said in February the group had been working for 18 months to incorporate “valuable feedback.”

“All of these changes will enable the station to accommodate the next century of growth in a multimodal transit way, which includes intercity rail, Metrorail, commuter rail and intercity bus,” she said at a meeting sponsored by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).

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D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who led efforts against the parking structure, said he welcomed the scaled-back option, adding that the move will leave more aboveground space for development.

“Taking back precious space from parking to provide bus service, train service and shared spaces will restore Union Station to its glory as one of the nation’s iconic and great stations,” he said in a statement. “We’re rebuilding a major transit hub in the center of our city that will stand for the next 100 years, and basically as busy each day as any of our regional airports.”

Union Station, which opened in 1907, was designated a historic landmark by the District in 1964 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.

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The station has not had a major rehabilitation in decades, and rail and local officials say a makeover is needed to meet future demand. Many of the station’s facilities are outdated, don’t meet federal accessibility requirements and fall short of modern transportation standards. Amtrak estimates about $75 million in deferred maintenance is needed at Union Station, which houses the passenger railroad, Metro, Maryland and Virginia commuter trains, and intercity and local buses. It is also the terminus for the D.C. Streetcar.

Amtrak last month filed a motion to use eminent domain to take control of the station from a private company that owns subleasing rights of the station through 2084. Amtrak said the move is necessary to ensure a smooth expansion process.

The proposed expansion is one of several major station projects in Amtrak’s list of capital priorities, ranking as a top contender for federal money through the infrastructure package signed by President Biden last year. About $66 billion is earmarked for rail over five years, while the project also could use millions of additional dollars available for transit and other infrastructure projects.

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The latest revisions are likely to increase the project’s price tag. In its draft environmental impact statement, the FRA opted out of concepts that included underground parking or other below-grade facilities, in part, because those would add millions of dollars and years of construction. It chose a plan that included “minimal excavation below the concourse level,” the quickest and least-expensive option.

The federal review estimated construction of that shorter plan would be done in phases and could take up to 11½ years. It was unclear how much the timeline would change with the latest revisions.

The FRA said its incorporation of a below-ground facility would better manage pickup and drop-off activity at the station while relieving surrounding streets of traffic.

“While this change will impact initial cost, it addresses many of the challenges of expanding regional access in the center of Washington DC, and we believe the impacts of this new strategy will benefit the community and the many citizens utilizing this historic multimodal transportation hub in long-term,” the agency said in a statement.

The FRA’s original plan called for 1,575 parking spots, down from the existing 2,200. That would have been in line with what is available in stations in Philadelphia and Boston, according to project documents. New York’s Penn Station, however, and many other train stations across the United States and the world do not have on-site parking.

City leaders said that the multilevel replacement garage was counter to the city’s efforts to reduce automobile travel. Among those who sent letters in opposition to the federal agency were Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Norton. The National Capital Planning Commission, which has zoning oversight of the project and provides planning guidance for federal land and buildings in the Washington region, also asked the FRA to include a parking program that “substantially reduces parking.”

The revised concept is expected to cut the nearly 1,600-space parking garage by as much as 50 percent, planning commission officials said.

Anita Cozart, interim director of the D.C. Office of Planning, recently praised the response to the city’s feedback, saying the FRA, Amtrak and USRC had listened in revising plans, particularly related to parking improvements, the bus facility and vehicle access to the station.