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'Fix Union Station Campaign' Sets Sights on Improving City's Rail Hub

 The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is lobbying for cosmetic changes as plans to redesign Union Station move forward.
Proposed Renovation from 'Fix Union Station'
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THE LOOP — As the Chicago Department of Transportation moves forward with plans to seek funding for an overhaul of Union Station, a transit activist group is lobbying for additional improvements to be tacked on to the plan.

CDOT's ambitious Union Station Master Plan calls for roughly $500 million in renovations and has been in development for more than three years.

Proposed changes include moving stairways and escalators to open up the the Amtrak waiting area and using underground tunnels connected to former mail platforms in the long-defunct Old Main Post Office for new rails and to make it easier to navigate the notoriously congested parts of the station.

Lizzie Schiffman breaks down the plans on DNAinfo Radio:

 The Chicago Department of Transportation's proposed renovations to Union Station, from a plan released in December 2013.
Proposed Union Station Renovations from CDOT
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Moving walkways with art installations that rival those at O'Hare Airport are included in renderings for the tunnel renovation proposals. Many elements of the plan are focused on preparing Union Station for high-speed rail travel.

Check out our slideshow for renderings from the CDOT proposal.

But the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a nonprofit that seeks to improve Chicago's position as a rail transit hub, has suggestions it says would vastly improve the station for an extra $5 million to $10 million.

"In transportation spending, it's a cheap project," Harnish said. "Not cheap — inexpensive. A high value to cost."

Simple improvements like adding a digital screen to the Great Hall would "make it possible to have new stores and things that really liven the space up and make it a much more pleasant place to be," Harnish said.

Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, said there had been small monitors with departure times displayed in the past, but it didn't mesh well with the design of the hall. He said monitors displaying train times were recently installed in a corridor just off the main hall that leads to the train platforms.

"We've greatly improved the departure signs," he said.

Renderings of Harnish's group's proposals are in brochures the group has been passing out to rail riders recently, titled "The Time Has Come To Fix Chicago Union Station," and online at FixUnionStation.com.

In many parts of Union Station, "you have the sense that you're in a basement instead of a train station," Harnish said.

Moving Amtrak's customer service station into the Great Hall, for example, would "mean that those escalators that come down from Canal Street can be pushed out to where the ticket counters are to make a big, open room," Harnish said. "If you make some modifications above, you can actually get sunlight down to that floor."

An entrance at Clinton Street is the linchpin of the high-speed rail association's plan.

"Right now it is basically a flat wall that tells the rest of the neighborhood that they're not interested," Harnish said. "By putting an entrance in there, that changes how the station interacts with the rest of the neighborhood."

Magliari said Amtrak is all for improving the station, but other projects are crucial to the plan like improvements to Canal Street — some of which is already scheduled — as well as the railroad tracks and platforms.

"There are lots of moving parts here, and unfortunately the infrastructure is wearing out quickly and the volumes are overwhelming it, which is what the Master Plan is designed to address," he said.

Check out our slideshow featuring renderings from the Midwest High Speed Rail Association's suggestions.

Union Station's last major renovation was in 1989.

Potential funding sources being considered for the CDOT plan could include federal grants or financing tied to a real estate development, officials said. CDOT did not respond to requests for comment about the renovation plans or how they will be funded.

Reinvigorating Union Station and making it more useful to commuters has been attempting several times in recent years. Last summer, the Metropolitan Planning Council launched a contest to Activate Union Station and funded the temporary installation of an inflatable playpen and artificial turf with tetherball posts.

The contest's goal was "bringing in more businesses, similar to Union Station in D.C. and Philadelphia, so there's more of a permanency in the activity there," said Kara Riggio with the planning council, who organized the contest.

Harnish said encouraging more people to wait in the Great Hall could have the same effect.

"I think if you did that, it now makes it possible to have new stores, and things that really liven the space up and make it a much more pleasant place to be," he said.

Magliari said Amtrak is all for having more businesses in Union Station. But he said part of the reason passengers choose not to wait in the Great Hall is because the trains are in a different area.

"People want to get to the trains as soon as possible so they can get the best seat," he said. "As long as trains are in the concourse level, they will want to queue there."

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