When it was built a century ago, Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station was embraced as a new gateway to the city. The elaborate Beaux-Arts building announced Baltimore's significance to the nation and anticipated serving generations of travelers to come.
Today, it remains an important passenger rail station, not only for Amtrak but for MARC commuter rail customers, most of whom are headed to and from the nation's capital. But its magnificent architecture suggests it's more historic than inviting. Its top three floors are mostly empty, and its customers rarely pause to do more than hop in a car or taxi and drive away.
Over the years, a few investments have been made. It's seen an occasional spruce up, the addition of a sculpture and a new parking garage, and every now and then someone offers a big idea like turning the station into a hotel. But the result has kept Penn Station as an island off Charles Street, hectic at times, but hardly a focal point for the neighborhood, let alone the city.
That's why the recent effort by Amtrak to study the feasibility of developing land around Penn Station and creating transit-oriented development is so important. There's no reason why a station as busy as Penn can't support much more around it.
The initial plan recently offered by Beatty Development envisions 1.5 million square feet of new homes and commercial development, a half-billion-dollar shot in the arm for the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. It's exactly what's needed to not only allow Amtrak to maximize the station's value but also help energize a mid-town Baltimore neighborhood with tremendous potential.
Penn Station is already Amtrak's eighth busiest in the country, and despite the complaints from some conservatives in Congress, the passenger rail system is growing by leaps and bounds. As a recent Brookings Institution report makes clear, Amtrak's 55 percent ridership growth since 1997 (to more than 31 million passengers each year) more than triples population growth and greatly exceeds gross domestic economic growth over the same period of time.
Complaints over Amtrak operating "losses" rarely mention the taxpayer subsidies shelled out to other forms of transportation, from cars to commercial air travel. Nobody talks about profitability in the context of the various taxes and fees that underwrite other forms of transportation. And even by the most narrow-looking and pessimistic accounting, the Northeast Corridor remains a top performer with the Washington-to-New York section (of which Baltimore is obviously a part) the most economically sound of all.
So why not capitalize on the convenience of being located next door to such an important travel hub? Surely, there are companies that would like to be steps away from an Acela Express train to the Big Apple or people who would like to walk out of their apartment and onto a MARC commuter train. And those who travel would surely pause to shop or dine nearby — if such conveniences were only a few steps away.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has already talked about the need to do more to make the city attractive to those who arrive by train. The "greening" of the rail corridor would certainly be a good place to start. But the key is for Amtrak to develop the station and the land it owns immediately adjacent to it.
There will be challenges, of course. Amtrak's future development of faster trains in the corridor is going to require that something be done — finally — about the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel. A replacement is expected to cost $1.2 billion. And that's hardly the only major infrastructure cost in the corridor.
Yet it's not difficult to see the project as having a tremendous payoff, not only for Baltimore, but for maximizing the benefits that come from having a robust interstate passenger rail service. It's a strategy that the Maryland Transit Administration is attempting to encourage around its rail stations as well, most notably at the Owings Mills Metro subway station and the long-anticipated Metro Centre development.
We hope that this won't turn out to be just another redevelopment plan that is announced with great fanfare and then ends up on somebody's shelf. Penn Station isn't some theoretical opportunity, it already generates the needed traffic. What's needed is a viable plan and enough private and public investment to capitalize on it.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun