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City Hall releases blueprint for upgrading Union Station

Updated: May 23, 2012 9:24PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration released a master plan for Union Station on Wednesday that identifies ways to increase capacity and improve the passenger experience at the nation’s third-busiest railroad terminal.

Over the years, there has been no shortage of grand plans for Union Station, which has grown increasingly crowded and uncomfortable for the 120,000 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 20 years since the last remodeling.

Now, City Hall is lowering 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 include: 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 says 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” include “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.

Jeff Sriver, project manager for the Union Station master plan, argued that past plans have been too pie-in-the-sky — without the money to pay for those grandiose ideas.

“What we’ve tried to do is to take a step back from the grand, visionary ideas of the past that would have added new track and subway tunnels to bypass Union Station or, perhaps, relied on tearing down existing buildings and building a new structure in their place,” Sriver said.

“What are the steps we can take immediately to more realistically solve some of the urgent problems at Union Station? It’s serving more people during peak periods than it ever has. It was once more for long-distance travelers. Now, most of the traffic is commuters. There’s a lot of congestion on the platforms as well as in the station and getting out of the station. And the problems are only going to get worse.”

Peter Skosey, vice-president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, said the master plan released during a morning meeting on a historic rail car provides a road map to “create a more efficient rail hub that better serves a growing number of passengers.”

The plan also has the potential to “transform this imposing historic structure into a truly great place,” he said.

Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein noted that the number of trains serving Union Station is projected to balloon by 40 percent by 2040, providing the impetus for change.

Without a significant remodeling, the station would be unable to accommodate Metra and Amtrak growth, nor could it serve high-speed rail.

“This important study identifies many opportunities for future improvements to increase the station’s capacity and quality of service,” Klein said.

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