Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Pennsylvania Station is Baltimore’s main transit hub, which feeds Amtrak, MARC, local light rail, and bus lines into the city and the region. Despite its importance, the station is awkwardly situated and not very well connected with the rest of the city. A plan developed by Amtrak and local developers aims to capitalize on the station’s potential the way DC and Denver have over the past few decades with their respective Union Stations.

In many ways, Penn Station is the perfect embodiment of Baltimore. It’s quirky and charming, guarded by a towering sculpture that everybody either loves or hates. Centrally located near some of the city’s trendiest and artsiest neighborhoods, it’s the eighth-busiest station in Amtrak’s national network, with over a million passengers each year (over three million if you count its eponym, the MARC Penn Line), and its ridership is expected to double over the next half-century.

Yet it’s also extremely isolated. It’s cut off from much of the rest of the city (and even the main branch of Baltimore’s Light Rail system) by nearby I-83, aka the Jones Falls Expressway. In many ways, it has just as much potential as its more celebrated counterparts in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, yet much of that space is woefully underused.

Amtrak, which owns Penn Station, along with Cross Street Partners and Beatty Development under the banner of Penn Station Partners, have begun collecting their ideas to revamp the station and surrounding area in the Penn Station Vision Plan. Whether or not that plan is enough to realize that potential remains to be seen.

Residents really want a better Penn Station

The Penn Station Vision Plan, which technically kicked off last year with its first meeting and the selection of Penn Station Partners, certainly doesn’t want for interest around Baltimore. Last week’s meeting was so packed that organizers had to move it across the street to a bigger area.

Multiple Maryland State Legislators attended, including Regina Boyce and Stephanie Smith, as did at least one Baltimore City Councilmember, Robert Stokes. The Penn Station district’s congressman, Elijah Cummings, wasn’t able to make it, but he still received a standing ovation when the first speaker mentioned his support for the project.

Interior of Penn Station. Image by m01229 licensed under Creative Commons.

There was a lot of encouraging news from Beatty Vice President of Community Development Tim Pula and the three other main speakers at the event, Amtrak Executive Vice President/Chief Administrative Officer D.J. Stadtler, Cross Street Partners Principal/Managing Partner/CEO Bill Streuver, and Brian Traylor, the Amtrak Planning Manager overseeing Penn Station’s redevelopment. Amtrak has already committed $90 million to renovating the existing station and building a new concourse, which the frequently-overcrowded station badly needs.

Travelers rarely go up to the station’s upper floors, and its ground floor is also underused except for a small cafe and a convenience store/book and magazine stand with ahem, interesting taste in literature. Both will be leased out and redesigned for retail. Amtrak will also construct new high-speed rail facilities as part of a larger $2.5 billion investment in high-speed rail.

Many of the redevelopment team’s goals certainly sound appealing: Mixed-use developments featuring local retailers that take advantage of underutilized storage space owned by Amtrak throughout the station’s rail yards and walkshed, a potential hotel, office space designed to take advantage of Baltimore’s leasing rates (they’re much cheaper than DC’s), community-sourced art adorning the station’s walls and entrances, new walkways, and spaces designed to reposition Penn Station as a social space as it already is a way station.

Planners cited Denver Union Station, Washington Union Station, and even London’s Kings Cross Station and Norway’s Oslo Airport as potential models for Penn Station’s makeover. Pula speculated about how the station might be better incorporated into Baltimore’s annual summer arts festival, Artscape, and even dared to hope that “Maybe someday it won’t be 100 degrees outside.” (Reader, that’s not happening.)

Will the project really materialize?

Yet beyond the lovely goals and the components covered by the money Amtrak’s already committed, many of the other details were frustratingly vague or nonexistent, especially when it came to describing how Penn Station Partners and Amtrak plan to make up what Streuver described to Colin Campbell of the Baltimore Sun as “an estimated $400 million to $600 million shortfall.”

To be sure, Penn Station Partners made clear it was planning to apply for every grant—Opportunity Zone and otherwise—and tax credit possible. But even so, the project will require not only more federal money, but also a great deal of city and state funds. This comes at a time when the former source is lacking, and the latter is not even particularly well-disposed to giving more money to Baltimore City’s schools, let alone its non-maglev-based train stations.

View from the Penn Line. Image by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Nor was the meeting heavy on certain other key transit details. There was a brief mention of the ongoing quest to find funding to replace the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, the 7,669-foot passageway which every Amtrak and Penn Line train goes through under West and Central Baltimore. It was built about three months after Ulysses S. Grant’s second inauguration.

And no such mention was made of the Long Bridge, the DC rail bridge last replaced five months after Theodore Roosevelt’s second inauguration. It’s essential for increasing rail traffic from Philadelphia to Richmond, including in Baltimore. Likewise, there was little information about how to better integrate Penn Station into Baltimore’s Light Rail and Metro Subway systems, or its growing bus and bike networks.

Eric Norton, policy director at the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, one of the key transit advocacy groups in the Baltimore area, summed up his thoughts about the night: “It’s good to see Amtrak enhancing its service and that real estate developers are investing in the potential for [transit-oriented development]. We would have liked to see more about all the other transportation connections (MARC, light rail, bus, taxi/ride-hailing, walking, etc.) and how this could enhance those connections. It is an asset to Baltimore and Maryland to have a fast, simple connection to Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. How can we leverage that to encourage more people to live and do business in the economic engine of the state?”

For the answer to that question, we may have to wait until an undetermined date later this fall, when the next Penn Station Draft Vision Plan Meeting is set to take place. Stay tuned.

Correction: Delegate Robbyn Lewis wasn’t at this meeting, but Delegate Regina Boyce was.