Two New Skyscrapers, Otherwise a Modest Future for Union Station
Last night Amtrak and the Chicago Department of Transportation detailed plans for the future of Chicago’s Union Station.
Union Station is the last of the historic train stations still active in Chicago. On an average weekday, it handles almost 120,000 local, regional, and long-distance Metra and Amtrak passengers. The station is at capacity, yet Metra wants to run 40% more trains into Union Station in the next 30 years, so expansion is imperative.
In recent years, plans have been floated for a massive intermodal transportation hub with new skyscrapers, subways, and high-speed rail at Union Station. But with the global economy currently pining for the fjords, the plan put together by a cavalcade of state, local, and federal agencies is necessarily yawn-inducing.
The biggest changes that people will likely see are on Canal Street, where traffic chaos is nothing new. If you haven’t been there lately, it’s a life-sized kinetic sculpture made up of honking cab drivers, fanny-packing tourists, lost suburban SUVs, angry CTA buses, clueless commuter coaches, and an increasing number of long-haul gypsy buses disgorging slack-jawed yokels who stop in the middle of the crosswalks to stare at Willis Tower like a sunflower at noon.
The proposed solution is to turn a block of West Jackson Boulevard south of Union Station into a transit center, with three canopied medians and as many as seven bus pick-up lanes.
Also on tap is a plan to eliminate some of the unused baggage platforms in the station concourse. This will allow Amtrak to widen the passenger loading and unloading areas, and also install stairwells to connect Union Station’s concourses directly to the street.
A little further out is a bit of future-proofing for the station. If you’ve ever taken a train across the country (and if you haven’t I fully recommend it), you know that you can’t get from Seattle to New York without changing trains in Chicago. This is part of the city’s legacy as the historic transportation nexus of the nation. But these days, it’s mostly an inconvenience. So Amtrak wants to put in a pair of through-tracks on the east side of the station, along the Chicago River. This will let the train company, theoretically, run trains from Oakland, Seattle, and Los Angeles all the way to New York, Washington, and Boston. More likely, however, will be trains that can do a full Midwestern Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Detroit-Cleveland run.
How much of what Amtrak and CDOT want to happen depends on money, so their combined wish list has been broken into short, mid-, and long-term goals. The short term projects have been funded. Everything else is up in the air.
- Union Station bus terminal.
- Rapid bus lanes on Madison and Washington Streets through the Loop.
- Improve passenger flow into and out of Union Station.
- Improve passenger flow through Union Station and its concourses.
- Rebuild Canal Street.
- New entrances to Union Station from Canal Street.
- Remove unneeded baggage platforms.
- Convert unused mail platform to make space for wider passenger boarding areas.
- Build stairways for direct access from street level to Metra platforms.
- Develop some kind of riverwalk along the Chicago River, and improve access into neighboring buildings.
- New CTA subway line under Canal Street.
- New CTA subway line under Clinton Street.
- New skyscraper at 222 South Canal Street.
- New skyscraper at 300 South Canal Street.
- Union Station was designed so that an office tower could one day be built on top of it.
- The station was designed for long-distance trains, and express mail; not daily commuters.
- Amtrak wants to turn Chicago’s Union Station into a retail and restaurant hub, like Grand Central Station in New York, or Union Station in Washington, DC.