Union Station could receive $418 million facelift if federal grant approved

“This vision has been years and years in the making, and now we finally have a chance to make it a reality,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at Union Station on Thursday.

SHARE Union Station could receive $418 million facelift if federal grant approved
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaks about a coalition of support for the Chicago Union Station Access Project at Union Station on Thursday, July 7, 2022.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaks about a coalition of support for the Chicago Union Station Access Project at Union Station on Thursday, July 7, 2022.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

For at least a decade transportation leaders and elected officials have promised Chicago’s Union Station was primed for major renovations that would improve travel times and service experiences, yet those plans rarely came to fruition.

But now it’s different, they say.

“This time I think you are going to find out it’s real,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said at Union Station. “It’s real because a president of the United States, Joe Biden, decided it was long overdue for us to have a national infrastructure bill.”

That plan would funnel more than $251 million in federal funding into union station that would expand platforms, ease congestion and make much-needed repairs. Another $83.7 million will come from local sources such as the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Chicago Department of Transportation. Amtrak will also put up $83.7 million.

Still the $418 million project has not secured the federal funding it desperately needs to complete the long-planned improvements.

Amtrak is competing for a slice of the $5 billion funding made available from the National Infrastructure Project Assistance Program, better known as the Mega Program. This initiative was created to support large highway, public transportation, intercity passenger rail and other infrastructure projects as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

About five of the proposed renovations already have pending grant applications with the United States Department of Transportation, separate from the Mega grant. Those renovations have previously been announced over the years but seemingly haven’t gone anywhere for an assortment of reasons but can be boiled down to a lack of funding.

This includes the “reactivation” of Union Station’s mail platform, which has been out of use since Amtrak ended its mail and express service in 2005. For more than a decade it has tried to repurpose for passenger use these rails that currently are decaying and used for storage.

It also calls for concourse and train shed ventilation improvements and platform capacity expansion. Much of the items proposed will address many of the recommendations set forth in the Chicago Union Station Master Plan study released in 2012.

The proposal also includes plans for direct connection from the SCAL bridge to Amtrak-owned trackage south of Roosevelt Road — which it estimates would eliminate 15 minutes on travel time spent on Illini/Saluki to Union Station. Linking these lines will end back-up maneuvers that trains are forced to make. It also will provide a new gateway for trains heading for Michigan and the East Coast.

The grant will also help Amtrak purchase property near Union Station that will ease congestion in the existing Chicago Yard facility, and it will look to create a new platform at Joliet station.

Each of the projects will start in phases depending on when the grant comes in. The mail platform revitalization can start as early as 2023; the connection from the bridge to Union Station would need more planning and would probably start in 2025. No services would be suspended during completion of the projects.

Durbin was joined at Union Station by Amtrak leaders, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill., and others to express confidence that the grant will be approved. It’s unclear when that award will be given but can happen in the next few months.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks about a coalition of support for the Chicago Union Station Access Project at Union Station on Thursday, July 7, 2022.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks about a coalition of support for the Chicago Union Station Access Project at Union Station on Thursday, July 7, 2022.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“We all share a bold vision for Chicago Union Station and the future of intercity rail transportation for our entire region,” Lightfoot said. “We want to expand green transportation services in the Midwest, create reliable access to and from Chicago which reduce travel time and give people the opportunity to travel without their cars.”

Lightfoot said it was time to modernize the iconic Union Station and funding from the federal government will do just that.

“This vision has been years and years in the making and now we finally have a chance to make it a reality,” Lightfoot said. “We have a historic opportunity to make an unprecedented, transformative investment in passenger rail services.”

Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s president and CEO, said Union Station should be the center point for “commerce, mobility and culture” in the city.

“We now have an opportunity to take a step of a whole different order to go past the incremental improvements we’ve been making to really change fundamentally the capability of this station,” Gardner said.

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