Federal Transit Bill Could Reap Union Station Upgrades
Union Station could reap $1 billion in improvements — including widened track platforms inside and a hotel on top — under a five-year surface transportation bill facing votes in Congress this week.
The measure could increase federal formula funding to the CTA, Metra and Pace by 15 percent over five years and boost federal funding to Illinois for road improvements by 10 percent over that period, federal officials said.
Over five years, the increases could amount to roughly $1.497 billion to the CTA and $880 million to Metra, preliminary estimates from U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski’s office indicated. And that’s not counting billions of other new money the agencies could vie for.
“This was better than I was expecting from a Republican Congress,” said Lipinski, D-Ill., who worked on the compromise measure as a member of the House-Senate Conference Committee. “I’m pleasantly surprised by this, and it certainly will help.”
However, Lipinski warned, ”This is not going to cure all our transportation problems. Chicago has the worst, or close to the worst, congestion in the country. … The combination of this and a state capital bill could go a long way in addressing a lot of the issues we face.”
The new money, which would not start flowing until Oct. 1, 2016, would not lessen the 2 percent Metra fare hike due to start Feb. 1, Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said Wednesday.
Even though Metra plans to use $15.6 million in 2016 fare operating revenue to cover some of its capital costs, any new federal money would be applied to additional capital projects, Oberman said.
Lipinski’s office estimated the federal formula increases to Metra, the CTA and PACE at 5 percent the first year, followed by four years of 2 percent increases.
“If the feds give us a 5 percent increase (in 2016), it would be very welcome,” Oberman said. But he added, “It’s a drop in the bucket. We need it.”
Under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, Metra could get help with $350 million needed to install new federally mandated safety technology. Or the agency could apply for a low-cost, 35-year federal loan to cover its “positive train control” mandate by 2019.
Oberman said the agency would probably not be interested in such a loan unless it had a dedicated revenue stream to repay the debt.
The bill’s increase in “state of good repair” funds would help both Metra and the CTA with their rail rehabilitation projects.
Lipinski said the inclusion of transit-oriented development projects among those eligible for the 35-year loan program could help bankroll loans of up to $1 billion for Union Station improvements.
“I certainly believe there’s so much more you could do with Union Station,” Lipinski said. That includes “making it easier to walk through. It’s a maze. More than that is the potential to put retail in there.”
Improvements discussed so far include adding a hotel to the top of the 1925-era station, adding concessions to unused space, improving interior traffic flow, and widening track platforms, Lipinski said. Metra commuters complained, especially during the frigid weather of January 2014, that platforms were packed to dangerously crowded levels.
“The number of people that go through the station is tremendous. If there are things there for people to do, and places to shop, it would be a much more valuable property,” Lipinski said.
Union Station is owned by Amtrak, which could take out the loan to improve the station, Lipinski said.
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