For Chicago rail buffs and anyone else who commutes via Union Station, the announcement that $1 billion-plus will be invested in and around the historic terminal is the biggest news since the days when movie stars would roll into town on their way between New York and LA. America moved on trains then, and Chicago was the center of the network.
Now, if plans come to fruition, a bit of that glamour—and the prosperity that comes with it—could return.
Plans call for a hotel and three office buildings, street-level retail and a food hall, pedestrian plazas and more. Income from all that would go straight to station owner Amtrak’s bottom line, helping stave off Washington zealots who would push the passenger rail agency out of business. With the development team headed by red-hot Riverside Investment & Development, it looks like this actually may happen.
But it’s only a first step—a big one, to be sure, the equivalent of remodeling terminals at O’Hare International Airport to provide creature comforts and help pay some bills, while not adding runways or new gates to handle the traffic.
Union Station today is packed. The stately 92-year-old travel palace originally built for transcontinental travel now serves far more people as a congested and constrained hub for Metra’s commuter operation. It needs wider platforms, modern-day technology, improved ventilation, new tracks and quite possibly more gates. And getting them depends on finding the federal and state resources to pay the tab.
Since neither capital-starved Amtrak nor City Hall has that kind of cash, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has gone in search of money, as I wrote in January—perhaps for a low-interest federal loan of as much as $1 billion for such work. He hasn’t yet reeled it in.
Today’s announcement will help by proving that private investors are willing to step up to the plate in a sort of public-private partnership. But who knows the rules in Donald Trump’s Washington?
Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Kurt Dillard is optimistic.
“I think we’ll get it,” he told me in a chat after today’s announcement. “We need the Trump administration to understand and work with us to take care of the nation’s infrastructure and safety system.”
Metra CEO Don Orseno is more measured.
“I can’t tell you where that’s at,” he says. “We’re going to work very hard at coming up with our federal and state partners.”
That “state” part is another problem.
Amtrak smartly primed the pump for today’s announcement by spending about $10 million a year over the last six years to tear out asbestos and dilapidated walls in the station’s headhouse, and do just enough restoration work in areas such as the Metropolitan Lounge and Burlington Room to show the building’s potential. That was sufficient to hook Riverside Investment.
To get the federal money, it would help if the locals could show Washington that state money is being invested, too. Of course, that likely will require passing a full state budget, something that hasn’t happened for nearly three years.
Meantime, let’s focus for today on the good news. There is every indication that something great is about to start happening at Union Station. A key piece has fallen into place. One more piece is needed to finish the job.