Image from Amtrak.

Last week, Amtrak unveiled a master plan for the future Union Station. Most press coverage immediately focused on the dollar figure in the plan, $7 billion, and even many transit advocates fretted that this cost sounded unrealistic. But we should not criticize Amtrak for suggesting a $7 billion plan. Instead, we need even more big plans to go along with this one.

That’s because this plan isn’t just for today, and isn’t just for Amtrak. It’s about what it will take to update a 100-year-old commuter and intercity rail bottleneck that we haven’t invested in for generations. It even goes far beyond Union Station, and there need to be plans for all of it.

Plus, transportation planning is not about what we need today. States put things on the plan which have no money at all, but decades later, they get done. If we want a commuter and intercity rail system that can grow for the next 100 years, we need to plan investments 30 years hence, today.

Make no little plans, because other transportation agencies are making big plans

The Washington region’s transportation investment primarily revolves around the Constrained Long-Range Plan, or CLRP. The Transportation Planning Board, a commission of government officials from DC, Maryland, Virginia, many local cities and counties, WMATA and more, creates and approves this plan.

The current CLRP plans for spending $222.9 billion in capital and operating money over 30 years. That’s the size of the region’s transportation spending to keep roads and transit running and add new capacity on both. It includes the DC streetcar, 11th Street Bridge, Silver Line, Beltway HOT lanes, I-95 HOT lanes, Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, Columbia Pike Streetcar, widening I-66, widening I-270, and widening nearly every major road in Northern Virginia and many in Maryland. It’s got a few bike and pedestrian projects, too.

In short, this plan contains almost everything the state and local governments currently want to do over the next 30 years. But a lot is not in the plan. There are no new Metro lines through the core. There are no dedicated bus lanes. There are a lot of road and rail and bus and pedestrian and bicycle projects that regional governments want to do, but had to cut because of that C in CLRP: constrained. The CLRP requires there to be some concept of where the funding will come from, like federal transportation dollars between 2025 and 2030 or something like that.

Make no little plans, because your problems are not little either

The CLRP also doesn’t have projects to do something about one of the most severe transit bottlenecks in the region: trains in and out of the core. Right now, Amtrak and MARC trains from 3 lines have to all come together at the “K interlocking,” the spot near K Street where all the tracks merge, and they also have to fight for space with VRE trains that go out to a storage yard in Ivy City.

Farther south, VRE and some Amtrak trains go through a tunnel to the L’Enfant Plaza area, where they merge with CSX tracks coming through Capitol Hill. 4 tracks, 2 from each, merge down to just 2 tracks over the Potomac’s Long Bridge and out to Virginia. The L’Enfant VRE station is horribly undersized for its need, especially since, being near the intersection of 4 Metro lines, it is a better transfer point for many riders.


Diagram of proposed L’Enfant commuter rail station expansion. Image from DC Office of Planning.


MARC, VRE, and Amtrak could all move far more people than they do today if they could load and unload more passengers at Union Station and L’Enfant Plaza, fit more trains in the area, and commuter railroads could run trains through from Maryland to Virginia and vice versa. They’ll also need to fix bottlenecks elsewhere, like in Baltimore.

We’ve been gradually upgauging roadway capacity in the area for at least 60 years, but during most of that time we neglected 100-year-old rail infrastructure because transit was declining. Now it’s growing quickly, and could grow even more if it had the room.


Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.


The platforms at Union Station are far too narrow compared to modern intercity and commuter rail stations, especially major terminals. The railroads can’t load and unload trains from more than one side of a platform at once, and therefore Amtrak says they can’t let anyone wait on the platform for trains before they are ready to board.

That means the too-small waiting areas become even more massively overcrowded. Other large train stations let people access the trains from more than one end.

Union Station is also more than just trains. It’s got the Metro station with the most people coming in or out, even though only one line serves it. It’s a major loading point for tour buses. Many intercity buses now stop there. Numerous local bus lines serve it, including 2 Circulators, and soon the streetcar will as well. It’s a huge parking garage and a major mall.

Many people also got confused by thinking that this plan is an Amtrak plan. Amtrak was the lead agency, though they made a major tactical mistake by focusing the rollout around themselves and reinforcing the idea that it was an Amtrak plan. This is a master plan for a place that serves many, many modes and agencies.

Make no little plans when you really need an even bigger plan

A good master plan considers all of the needs for all of the modes and all of the agencies, then fits everything together like a massive puzzle. This plan not only includes a complete rebuild of the inadequate tracks and too-narrow platforms, but also a fixed K interlocking, 3 new concourses, underground parking (some of which we might be able to do without), a whole bus station, rebuilding the H Street bridge (something DC says needs to happen anyway), more space in the Metro station (another severe problem even today), more retail which brings in more money, supports for buildings atop the railyards, and more.

But this plan doesn’t even cover everything. We also need an even bigger master master plan, that goes along with the Union Station plan, for the railway corridor from at least Springfield through to Baltimore. The master master plan should look at what it will take to integrate MARC and VRE into a commuter rail operation that runs through from one state to the other, if that turns out to be worth the cost.

This even more comprehensive plan should look at how to untangle passenger and freight on the Long Bridge, include the cost of a better 4-track L’Enfant station, improve connections to Metro at stations, and even new Metro lines to serve Union Station.


A potential future Metro system, if the commuter rails ran frequent service and served as “express” lines.


Then, that plan needs to go on the CLRP. Maybe that’s a $25 billion plan. That could be 10% of the region’s investment in the 30-year timeframe, but this is also even more significant to the federal government. This is the gateway to the nation’s capital, a pair of stations by the United States Capitol and the densest cluster of federal offices, the way many visitors come to see our monuments and memorials.

Make no little plans when by the time they happen, big plans might be realistic

Sure, right now Congress seems entirely hostile both to having a great capital and to investing in infrastructure across the nation. But 30 years ago a lot was different, and by 30 years from now a lot will change again, for better or worse. The stimulus popped up very fast, and rewarded everyone who had “shovel-ready” projects. A lot could change one day, and maybe almost overnight.

Meanwhile, the railroads, Metro, and everyone else needs to price out these projects and get them onto the long-range plans. If they don’t, someone else will put something on instead. It’s not like the state DOTs will just put in a 5-, 10- or 25-billion dollar placeholder for “really important stuff we will figure out later.”

No, they’ll stuff the tail end of that pipeline full of just about everything anyone can come up with, and grab all of the future money. Even if most of that stuff is also worthy, and even if not everything from the Union Station plan gets built, the only way stuff like fixing the commuter railroads and Union Station overcrowding will ever get done is if someone puts it into the hopper along with everything else now.

We should cheer Amtrak, the commuter railroads, USRC, Akridge and everyone else for thinking big. We need similarly big plans for Metro, L’Enfant and the Long Bridge, and everything else. Then all transit supporters need to push Congress and the states to invest as they should, today and 30 years from now, and in the meantime, push to at least fund the highest priority pieces.

Yesterday, Dan Malouff wrote about the long-term planning from Gaithersburg versus Rockville. Gaithersburg planned ahead by about 10 years, while Rockville didn’t, to its detriment. Dan wrote, “Proactively plan for what you want, or lose out to someone who did.”

He could just as easily have been talking about Union Station or any other transit expansion plan. With this plan, what Union Station needs might or might not happen. But without it, it definitely won’t.

Update: Another problem, which I meant to include but didn’t get in, is that Amtrak only released a top-line cost number, without details about where the $7 billion comes from or how much each element contributes to the cost. Amtrak will need to be more forthcoming with details as it moves forward so that people can better understand the dollar figure and either understand why it is the size it is, or challenge assumptions that make it so large.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle.