To become high-speed hub, Union Station needs cash

Chicago_union_station_hallFrom the Saturday, Jan. 4, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

If Wrigley Field is Chicago’s Friendly Confines, then Union Station has to be the city’s unfriendly one.

But just like Wrigley, changes are being discussed for Chicago’s aging transportation center as it ultimately morphs into an expected high-speed rail hub from which rapid lines will spider out throughout the rest of the Midwest. As for when those changes are actually coming to Union Station, we don’t know.

Just like Wrigley.

Built in 1925 along Canal Street between Adams and Jackson in Chicago’s West Loop, Union Station – with its limestone façade and massive Corinthian columns – is one of the city’s most iconic structures. That’s particularly true inside the magnificent Great Hall, which boasts marble floors, brass lamps and seasonal décor that can take a visitor’s breath away upon entrance, unlike the rest of Union Station, which is just suffocating.

Beyond the spacious Great Hall – which really serves much more as an event space than as one that benefits commuters – lurks a cramped, congested and confusing labyrinth that is in dire need of not just a renovation, but a massive rebuild.

“Riders can testify to that,” Crain’s Chicago Business columnist Greg Hinz noted recently. “The once grand and sprawling intercity rail hub is now a chaotic barn, home to Amtrak trains, Metra trains and a funny sort of shopping center that goes up and down and mostly just gets in the way. Try getting around the station, especially when it’s busy and you’re swimming upstream. And try finding CTA buses, which are located in different spots, all of the far from [“L”] stations.”

A week before Christmas, I tried finding my way around Union Station for the first time when I took Amtrak down to St. Louis. While seeking out my train line, I found signage to be lacking, knowledgeable employees to be scarce and waiting areas to be scrunched. Lines of people were everywhere, but no one seemed to really know if they were standing in the right one. We just nervously hoped that we were.

As the nation’s third-largest railroad terminal, Union Station already experiences a level of passenger traffic that would rank it among the 10 busiest airports in the U.S. But by 2040, according to a Chicago Department of Transportation report issued this past May, it’s projected to see its train load increased by 40 percent.

Union Station needs a lot of work just to handle its current passenger load, let alone an influx of trains and travelers as large as that.

That’s no secret to the planning council’s Peter Skosey, who told Crain’s that, “Expansion of Union Station is key to the future of office growth downtown. Union Station is at capacity now.”

Beyond that, Howard Learner, head of the Environmental Lawa and Policy Center and the driving force behind Chicago’s high-speed rail movement told Hinz that, “Union Station is going to be the hub of the Midwest high-speed rail network” and that funding it is his top priority.

As for that funding, it’s projected that the project will cost at least hundreds of millions – and potentially billions – of dollars. Widening old mail platforms under a high-rise is estimated to be $100-million-plus for each, while building a brand new station would be at least $500 million. Reconfiguring Union Station’s serpentine concourse, however, could cost only about $50 million.

“I’d like to see [Union Station] on the mayor’s wish list,” Skosey said about Rahm Emanuel. “Everybody likes this idea. But nobody has the money.

As a result, even though it’s only three days past Jan. 1, it might already be wait ’til next year for Union Station funding.

Just like the Cubs.