Passenger trains and stations are making a slow comeback.
Washington's historic Union Station, since its renovation a few years back, has experienced a spectacular rebirth as a railroad terminal and shopping mall. In New York City, Amtrak is dreaming of a $315 million scheme to duplicate that success by moving its Penn Station from Madison Square Garden to the neo-classic General Post Office building on Eighth Avenue and 31st Street.
Nothing as grandiose is happening in Baltimore. But the whole Mount Royal area is going to get a boost when a new 550-car garage is built under Pennsylvania Station and a grand plaza is created to improve vehicle and pedestrian access from Charles and St. Paul streets.
This much-delayed project is getting started not a moment too soon. It was originally designed in the early 1980s, soon after the 1911 vintage Beaux-Arts classical station was beautifully restored. Since the station's restoration, commuter service between Baltimore and Washington has been greatly expanded. Amtrak long-distance trains have grown in popularity, too. The additional parking from the double-deck garage now under construction is already sorely needed.
The construction project is estimated to take about 18 months to complete. No streets will be entirely closed but traffic flow will be altered and slowed down in the station area. But once the garage is completed, further disruption is in store when a total of five bridges will be reconstructed.
Will this improvement have an impact on surrounding areas?
For years, real estate speculators have talked about Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station vicinity as a natural extension of Washington's Union Station area. They have romanticized about how the relatively easy commuting time to and from the nation's capital would bring new residents and office users to Baltimore.
So far, little of that has happened. Pennsylvania Station is a revolving door accommodating thousands of people every day. In as quickly as possible, out in a hurry. The station construction now under way represents the best chance in years to transform the whole area. The city and private investors should not miss this chance.