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Amtrak claims eminent domain to gain control of Washington, DC’s Union Station for necessary repairs

April 19, 2022
5 min read
Inside Union Station
Amtrak claims eminent domain to gain control of Washington, DC’s Union Station for necessary repairs
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The historic 115-year-old Union Station in Washington, D.C., one of the busiest transit hubs in America, may soon get much-needed repairs and renovations. To accomplish that goal, however, Amtrak has taken the notable legal step of filing for eminent domain to seize control of the station.

According to the Washington Post, Amtrak filed its complaint on April 14. It seeks control of the share of the Union Station property owned by Union Station Investco LLC, which has the station's subleasing rights for the next 62 years. The complex arrangement involving operations at Union Station has been a key holdup in long-delayed repair work and upgrades to the aging station. It's the nation's second-busiest train hub with nearly 5 million passengers annually and an essential component of the Northeast Corridor rail system.

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The U.S. government actually owns the property, while Amtrak owns Union Station's platforms and railroad tracks. The government, through the nonprofit Union Station Redevelopment Corp., leases out management rights to Union Station Investco. Amtrak seeks to consolidate control by using the argument that it's the entity best suited to take over operations and management of the train hall. In turn, it says it will invest billions of dollars to do things such as expand the concourse and repair one tunnel that runs under the station that the Post story reported is “in serious need of repair or replacement.”

“We need to advance some long-delayed state of good repair and capital projects so that we can improve the station and shore up the station infrastructure,” Dennis Newman, Amtrak's executive vice president, told the Post. “An improved Washington Union Station is really key to our mission.”

The Union Station main waiting room was designed after the great hall in the Baths of Diocletian. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Union Station opened in 1907 and was designed by famed architect Daniel Burnham. The station is known for its ornate marble floor and neoclassical vaulted ceiling — which is covered in actual 23-karat gold leafing. It also houses numerous restaurants and retail stores. Union Station is a major hub for local commuters who take Metro trains, Maryland MARC and Virginia Railway Express trains, and local and intercity buses.

At the moment, Amtrak currently subleases about 13.4% of the station from USI for its railroad operations. This includes the concourse located to the right before passengers enter the platform area. Amtrak wants to gain control of the entire property, with the exception of the parking garage.

Amtrak's eminent domain filing values the Union Station property at $250 million. That's the amount the company said it offered to USI to buy its leasing right earlier this month. USI never responded to Amtrak's offer. Ultimately, the court will determine the appropriate price for the rights to operate Union Station. Until a ruling is given, nothing will change with regard to the management of the station.

Amtrak is banking on its decades of experience operating train stations to convince the judge to rule in its favor. Amtrak owns stations in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore. However, it says it doesn't have the capacity under the current organizational structure to make improvements it says are crucial to maintain the efficiency and safety of Union Station.

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The station was designated a historic landmark in 1964, then added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. Its past has been checkered with glaring periods of disrepair, though. The station was briefly closed in 1981 after heavy rain caused parts of the roof to collapse.

Amtrak noted in its court filings that "poor maintenance and lack of capital investment" have hurt the station in recent years and blames USI for kicking the can down the road and fighting Amtrak's maintenance proposals. It says repairing the train tunnel will involve replacing structurally unsound beams, girders and columns. The company also has plans to redesign ticketing and passenger waiting areas to improve passenger flow and ease crowding at the station, which sees 100,000 commuters pass through it each day. USI has not publicly commented on Amtrak's court filing.

Union Station in Washington, D.C., is one of the busiest train hubs in the country. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images)

If Amtrak succeeds, it could clear the way for as much as a $10 billion expansion that would completely transform Union Station. Of course, such monumental infrastructure projects take time – it's estimated that the proposed redevelopment of the key D.C. transit hub would not be finished before 2040.

Featured image by Getty Images
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