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Union Station project inches along

Grand plans to increase capacity and improve the frustrating and uncomfortable passenger experience at Chicago’s 90-year-old Union Station have been announced and re-announced with precious little progress. It’s been mostly talk and little action.

On Friday, Chicago-area transportation and elected officials gathered together once again to talk about their favorite subject. Only this time, there was at least a little progress to showcase: a renovated marble staircase in Union Station’s Great Hall made famous in the classic movie, “The Untouchables.”

The new staircase — embedded in the memory of moviegoers because of the tumbling baby carriage rescued by Andy Garcia’s George Stone — highlighted $14 million worth of improvements in the works bankrolled by Amtrak and expected to be completed by the end of 2016.

They include relocating and enlarging a passenger lounge to double space available for business-class and sleeping-car passengers and allow expansion of seating for coach passengers at the concourse level.

The Amtrak-funded improvements also include: replacing door systems; upgrading an antiquated heating system; restoring the barrel-vaulted skylight that’s 219 feet long and hangs 115 feet above the Great Hall and turning a former women’s lounge into banquet and event space.

Steps in the marble staircase in Union Station’s Great Hall before renovation. File Photo by Brian Jackson
Steps in the marble staircase in Union Station’s Great Hall before renovation. File Photo by Brian Jackson

Those projects were not the only sign that the long-stalled Union Station project is inching along.

The city, RTA, Metra and Amtrak have also agreed to jointly fund preliminary planning for 13 short-term improvements pinpointed by Chicago’s master plan for Union Station. A “request-for-proposals” for “planning, historic review, preliminary engineering and up to 30 percent design” is posted at procurement.Amtrak.com.

In yet another sign of incremental progress, Amtrak is taking the first concrete steps to redevelop Amtrak-owned Union Station, the air-rights above it and the land around the station.

A “request-for-information” has been issued and sent to local, regional and national developers. That signals the start of competition to identify firms capable of implementing a “master development plan, design, construction, financing and potential operation and maintenance of non-rail assets.” Those plans are likely to include a healthy mix of hotel, residential and commercial development.

On Friday, the usual suspects gathered once again in the Great Hall to talk about the desperate need to upgrade the nation’s third-largest rail terminal.

“The truth is, this station is fighting below its weight class. It can be a greater economic engine and job creator for the city of Chicago than it is today,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, using one of his favorite expressions.

“We can make Union Station— not just what it was once before, but serve the city of Chicago economically for the next hundred years to compete in the 21st Century and win.”

RTA Board Chairman Kirk Dillard said he’s ridden in and out of Union Station for nearly three decades and knows first-hand how cramped and uncomfortable it is.

“I experience what riders experience first-hand, including broken water pipes that always seems to happen at 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon,” Dillard said.

“We’ve got to move this process forward, and we’ve got to do it and restore this building quickly for the comfort of our customers and their safety.”

Metra Board Chairman Marty Oberman noted that 85 percent of the trains that come in and out of Union Station are Metra trains serving 54,000 passengers every workday.

“Union Station was not built for commuter traffic. It was not built to handle a BN train that unloads 1,500 people at a time. It wasn’t built to withstand times when we have train back-ups, like during the Polar Vortex and thousands of people are waiting to get the tracks cleared,” Oberman said.

“If you go out to the train platforms, they were built for long-distance travel 90 years ago. They need to be widened, which means that the tracks have to be relocated. That’s a big part of the need. Secondly, the concourse area was not built to manage the thousands and thousands of people who come through here during rush hour and to have a sensible and efficient movement of pedestrian traffic. Just solving those problems will require a massive restructuring of the infrastructure of this building — which is why it hasn’t been done for many, many years.”

Air-quality at Union Station is another pressing concern, the Metra chairman said.

“We all know there are serious problems there. It is not a problem that can be solved with a short-term fix. It’s fundamental to the way the ventilation systems work in here over the train sheds. And remember, you didn’t have hundreds of diesel locomotives coming in and out of this structure at the time this structure was designed,” Oberman said.

Even with a “much better stream of revenue” from redeveloped commercial space and high-rise development, Oberman warned that, “This is a hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars project to get this done correctly.” Which is why the project is inching along so slowly.

Over the years, there has been no shortage of grand plans for Union Station, which has grown increasingly crowded and uncomfortable for arriving and departing passengers who ride 300 trains into and out of the station every weekday.

The problem is, many of those plans have been too grand and too costly. As a result, it’s been more than 20 years since the last remodeling.

Three years ago, City Hall lowered its sights to more realistic short-term projects with identified funding while still maintaining a list of medium- and long-term plans that could be done if the money is ever found.

Short-term projects included: improved station entrances; expanded Amtrak waiting rooms; enhanced bus lanes on Clinton and Canal Streets and construction of an off-street CTA bus terminal on a surface parking lot south of Jackson Boulevard between Canal and Clinton.

The plan said projects that might be delivered in five to 10 years include: reallocating space currently occupied by baggage platforms to make way for wider commuter platforms; converting “unused mail platforms” to accommodate “inter-city passenger trains”; reorganizing existing station facilities to “improve capacity and flow” and rebuilding the Canal Street viaduct above parts of the station in a way that “improves street access” to the station concourse below.

Long-term ideas described as more “visionary” included “expanding or completely replacing” Union Station in the 200 or 300 blocks of South Canal.

The master plan also evaluated the concept of adding more “track and platform capacity in one of two alternative underground alignments: Clinton Street or Canal,” according to a press release issued by the city’s Department of Transportation.