Mayor Lightfoot, state officials, and federal electeds advocate for Union Station upgrades

Mayor Lightfoot speaks at a lectern in Chicago Union Station
Mayor Lightfoot speaks at a lectern in Chicago Union Station. Photo: High Speed Rail Alliance.

On Thursday, July 8, Mayor Lori Lightfoot joined federal elected officials Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (IL-4) alongside state transportation officials in asking for federal funds for improvements to Chicago’s Union Station and nearby tracks that would make the station a more comfortable and spacious place for passengers and reduce delays on certain Amtrak routes. 

Union Station in Chicago’s West Loop is a local, regional, and national transportation hub. Six of Metra’s 11 lines begin at the station, Amtrak trains with destinations within and outside of Illinois start at Union Station, and intercity bus operators like Peoria Charter Bus and Flixbus have routes stopping there. Lightfoot, Durbin, and Garcia advocated for upgrades that total $418 million, outlined in the Chicago Union Station Access Project plan that was submitted to the federal transportation department in May.

Lightfoot, Durbin, and Garcia were joined by Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner, IDOT Secretary Omer Osman, Metra CEO Jim Derwinski, and Cook County DOT Superintendent Sis Killen. Representatives from the Regional Transit Authority, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Chicago Federation of Labor, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, and the Commercial Club of Chicago were also present to show their support. 

If funding is approved, transportation officials at Amtrak, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), the City of Chicago, Metra, Cook County, and Michigan’s Department of Transportation will have to collaborate to bring their shared vision to life. Senator Dick Durbin provided some context for the tentative upgrades, “Chicago Union Station has long been the hub of our passenger rail network in Illinois and the Midwest. Durbin continued, “But it’s time for a new and transformational vision that will improve and expand passenger rail. The $418 million Chicago Union Station Access Project will significantly enhance the passenger rail experience in and out of Chicago and provide a range of improvements to passenger rail service in Illinois and throughout our region. I’m glad to join Mayor Lightfoot and regional leaders in pushing to get this essential project across the finish line.”

Now, let’s look at the proposed upgrades:

  • Transition Amtrak’s southbound passenger service off of Canadian National’s tracks between Chicago and Joliet, which should improve on-time performance
  • Improving the passenger experience by modernizing concourses and platforms to improve passenger flow and providing cleaner air by updating the station’s ventilation system, where currently diesel fumes are emitted by the locomotives directly into the platforms where it takes a long time to evacuate the air. 
  • Increased capacity that will allow new routes and increased frequencies that Amtrak has planned for the Midwest through its “Amtrak Connects Us” initiative. (For example, Amtrak and IDOT have proposed a route between Chicago and Rockford.)
  • Create a new way for passenger trains to access Union Station from the South, which will significantly improve on-time performance for both Amtrak and Metra trains. This new path would lead from the St. Charles Air Line at 16th Street directly into the station.
  • Upgrades that make it possible to provide direct rail service between O’Hare and McCormick Place via Union Station. This would happen by routing trains from Union Station down the new connection to the St. Charles Air Line, which leads to the lakefront railway that goes under McCormick Place.

A Block Club Chicago report on the proposed upgrades, states that Amtrak will cover 20 percent of the cost and Illinois will cover another 20 percent. A press release from Senator Dick Durbin’s office states that project partners recently applied for $251 million in federal funding from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s new Mega Grant Program, which provides federal funding for large projects “likely to generate national or regional economic, mobility, or safety benefits”.

Conceptual Design of Direct Connection between SCAL and CUS
Conceptual design of direct connection between SCAL and CUS. North is to the right, and Union Station is not shown. The proposed “78” development site is at the bottom edge of the drawing. Architectural drawing: Amtrak

In looking over statements from local and regional transportation leaders, comments from IDOT leaders and Environmental Law & Policy Center staff stood out to me. Illinois Transportation Secretary Omer Osman commented, “The improvements to Union Station will build upon the investments being made in passenger rail across the state through Gov. Pritzker’s historic, bipartisan Rebuild Illinois capital program. Working together, as local, state and federal partners, we are strengthening our status as the transportation hub of North America.”

Environmental Law & Policy Center Executive Director Howard Learner shared his thoughts, “Investments in Union Station benefit riders throughout the region, leverage our investments in higher speed rail, and reduce our carbon footprint when more people choose rail travel and leave their cars at home. It’s good for Chicago, good for the Midwest and good for the planet.”

The High Speed Rail Alliance, based in Chicago, also supports Amtrak’s goals in the Midwest, centered on Union Station, especially as they relate to and support better rail connections between O’Hare and destinations beyond the city.

I couldn’t agree more with Howard and hope that federal funding is approved so that needed upgrades come to our city, state, and region.

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