Renovation Of Amtrak’s Union Station In DC Is Everything That Is Wrong With Infrastructure In America

The Empire State Building took one year and 45 days from construction state to opening, beginning March 17, 1930, and having its official open May 1, 1931. We used to build things in this country. In many parts of the world, they still do.

While the concept of the D.C. metro’s “Silver line” which reaches Washington Dulles began in the 1960s, it wasn’t until 2002 that a funding agreement was approved. However it took 7 years for construction to begin, and Metro to Dulles didn’t actually start until November 2022 – two full decades later.

Beijing Capital airport took four years to build. The airport’s terminal 3 expansion took four years, opening prior to the 2008 Olympics. Meanwhile the new Beijing Daxing airport took five years to build. Here in the U.S., though?

  • Adding just three gates to the existing main terminal at Austin’s airport is a four year project.

  • When we really fast-track something, we get New York LaGuardia’s renovations. Then-Vice President Biden kickstarted the project with comments about the existing facility being “third world” in February 2014. A year and a half later there were plans to renovate, and it became a legacy project for then-Governor Andrew Cuomo. Delta’s renovated terminal opened in June 2022.

    The project was supposed to include an Airtran, connecting Manhattan to the airport, but no current plans are in place to do that. One of the criticisms of a previous plan for this was that environmental review took only two years and therefore it necessarily had to have been improper.

I’m not suggesting China is the model by any means! The Paris metro gets extended far faster and less expensively than comparable projects in the United States.

A perfect encapsulation of why we can’t have nice things is the new $8.8 billion redevelopment plan for Union Station in Washington, D.C.

They’ve revised the plan to reduce parking because opponents felt they had too much, even though exactly what you want is for people to be able to show up at the station and take the train instead of drive. But mostly there’s this, the project isn’t even expected to be complete until 2040 and of course expect that to get pushed off.

Although plans call for station upgrades to be finished in about 18 years, much of the timetable is unclear. The federal environmental review of the project, which began in 2015, is at least three years behind schedule. Once the federal approval process is complete, a design phase is likely to take several years, project officials said, possibly followed by 13 years of construction.

Ironically, supporting this project which will take into the 2040s, D.C.’s Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton says “We cannot delay the project indefinitely and ensure the station continues to function.”

As is likely clear, renovating Union Station in D.C. is far from alone in suffering from too much citizen participation and too much delay.

California high speed rail is a 20-year, $100 billion boondoggle that will probably never be built as-intended. There are just too many veto points along the way, most of them created by the well-meaning National Environmental Policy Act.

Environmental review created too much ‘citizen participation’. Large-scale projects drag on for years and cost far more than their counterparts in Europe. Federal agencies signing off on projects add too many costs, too (so do local governments extracting concessions from developers, which limits how much housing gets built and raises the cost of housing).

You have Environmental Impact Statements, Public Review and Comment Periods (followed by supplemental Environmental Impact Statements), and then Legal Challenges. An insufficient National Environmental Policy Act analysis alone is reason for courts to start the process over. And multiple agencies must coordinate and work through disagreements and communication issues.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. I don’t know there’s much more to say. Govt. DOESN’T help. It just gets in the way.

  2. Yes, the government gets in the way. In those 13 months 5 workers fell and died. Yes, the government gets in the way of expendable help.

  3. Reducing parking is a good thing to encourage people to use public transportation or ride share to arrive/depart the station; also a good thing for the environment. Otherwise, yes, the forecast is not good.

  4. No, you don’t want more people driving into Union Station in the middle of the crowded city and parking. Want you want is those people taking public transit to Union Station. Or driving to one of the suburban stations (New Carrollton for example) and parking there, where there are lots designed for just this.

  5. Keep parking to a minimum around a train station will just encourage many folks to simply drive the entire trip and bypass the train. That’s what I would do.

  6. Urban planner here! Some good points in this criticism but disagree with the parking. Replacing the planned chunk of parking with 500,000 sq. ft. of mixed development is an excellent decision. Parking rarely pays for itself (airports are sometimes the exception) because drivers usually don’t pay the full cost. To say nothing of all the externalities of driving – pollution, congestion, and a ton of dead space. Parking is often mis-planned for. People will use the facility as it’s designed. It you plan for cars, you can’t easily repurpose that space. If you plan for all uses, you get more people, especially because the capacity is so much higher for other modes- mass transit, biking, walking.

  7. As a naturalized US citizen since 2005, and from Europe (The Netherlands) I can only say that while some of your criticism is fair, it can take equally (frustratingly) long across the pond, with equal amounts of (frustratingly) red tape and citizen and “pork” reviews. Look at the high speed train line being built between London and Birmingham. The endless and super costly Amsterdam subway, both the original plan now the extension. Bridges to nowhere in France and Italy.

    The grass simply isn’t greener. We’ve uber-democratized some processes to a point where regulation and approvals have all become linked to political and financial benefit. That’s just the model we’ve chosen “in the west”. The comparison to China or the middle east is unfair, because yes they move fast but they also break things and seem to care less about human cost.

  8. Check the Boston main South Station, it’s a disgrace for Amtrak along for USA. It’s like back in 1905 over there: same look, more dirt, homeless, all in the dark age w/out much of modern tech. Just terrible experience. DC terminal looks like a palace to compare.

  9. Instead of comparing the US to China or Europe, I think we should use Singapore and Japan as models.

  10. I recall meeting with the people from France’s SNCF and Alstom, developers of the TGV. They had been planning to bid on building US high speed rail but eventually withdrew because the costs and Nimbyism just made it too much of a bother. They literally couldn’t believe how inefficient we are here!

  11. Gary you should install the Grammarly chrome extension. It will automatically catch all the spelling mistakes for you.

  12. The DC station is a destination. London Underground in the City has no parking in the City that I have seen.
    Interesting article, but misses a bunch of points, I think.

  13. @ Gary,
    I think you are still missing the point. Cars are NOT needed in most cases to get to the station. That IS the purpose of Metro, to bring people to the station, not cars.

    Here is an example of creative thinking that does not require a car. Wife and I were in Helsinki for our normal month and a half stay. Living in Malta for four years, we missed (seriously) going to Costco. So, we took a Metro in Helsinki, outlying part, to the train station. Then crossed the street and took tram to ferry. Took ferry to Stockholm. Walked one klick to Stockholm metro. Got off at stop to connect to light rail. It’s what most people in Europe do. They will avoid the car if mass transit is available. Why is that so hard for Americans to understand. Or are their butts stuck in their car seat.

  14. Things get built under dictatorships or laissez-faire capitalism (essentially industrial corporativism). What to say? Want things built – pick you poison.
    The modern manager-class driven system is already unstable and will soon fail under external and internal pressure. If we are “lucky”, we fall back to wartime-like dictatorship and things start get built again

  15. Remember the old statement “Leaps and Bounds”? Well I have started to think that we now operate under the statement “Leaps and Stops”.
    We built the finest aviation industry in the world and then we stopped!
    We sent men to the moon and then we stopped!
    We built an excellent national highway system and then we stopped!
    We built some of the best ships the world has ever seen and then we stopped!
    We used to work together in Congress to get grand plans accomplished and then we stopped!
    I could go on but you get the point!

  16. There is TOO MUCH government in this country.
    TOO MANY gov’t agencies with TOO MANY people telling other people what to do, or what not to do.
    Until gov’t at all levels gets scaled back, and I mean WAY back, things will only get worse.

  17. Look at the new Penn Station in NYC. Don’t know the price or timeline, but since I didn’t hear about overruns and delays, I assume it was relatively on time…and it’s beautiful!!

    Flipside, we think of world-class German Engineering but look at Berlin Brandenburg airport. A master-class in ineptitude…so not just limited to the U.S.

  18. As a neighbor of Union Station I’ve followed the project for years and appreciate the time in the planning that now simply reduces the number of parking. Lord everything is not black and white or clicks on a blog. The residents of DC are much less car centric than average and pedestrian safety is important Although I admit I hope the car rentals remain. Our 29 year old Ford Ranger doesn’t leave the beltway
    Please recognize Union Station sits next to not only The Capitol Grounds & eastern end of the downtown , but the historic neighborhood of Capitol Hill and especially the adjacent Stanton Park and Swamp Poodle sub neighborhoods. The current plan better addresses intermodal transportation issues from access points to scooters, bikes Car Share and Street Car.
    An autocratic ruling class can move mountains usually over people. Not happening in my back yard. Plus I’m old and any delay is welcome. Although the central Hall shown will stay the same beautiful space that it is! It’s what I see the most walking to and from Metro
    Plus, I’d be more focused on the new United concourse at Dulles 😉

  19. Parking does not equal accessibility! Reducing parking is exactly what you want for an urban core transit center connecting 3 train networks, metro, regional & local bus, and streetcar with urban neighborhoods. Replacing excess parking with businesses will bring in far more customers, and encouraging suburban users to drive into the station defeats the purpose of a good multimodal transportation hub.

  20. Reducing parking is insanely stupid. I drive in and park there all of the time. The anti-parking zealots have no clue how infrastructure works or is used. That they have enough influence to affect this project is an indicator of failure before it starts. 9 billion to make the station less accessible for frequent train users, insane levels of mendacity

  21. Anti parking idiots dont realize metro is closed at times Amtrak is running.

  22. Reducing parking will also keep people from driving to work in the Capitol Hill area of D.C. by providing fewer spaces for them to park. People who drive to that area for the most part need to drive on several miles of city streets which causes tremendous traffic congestion.

    I worked in that area for over thirty years before retiring. When I moved there in 1987, I chose Maryland suburbs because of good schools and commuter trains. I told the real estate agent, “Don’t show me ANYTHING more than ten minutes away from a commuter train station.” The cost of the monthly MARC ticket was far less than the monthly cost of parking downtown, and that doesn’t even take into account the cost to operate, maintain, and replace the car that would have otherwise been used – not to mention the hour-plus of intolerable driving needed (it’s work to drive, why drive to work). On the train I could relax and read the paper.

    In the 30 plus years I commuted from suburban Maryland to Union Station for work, I drove to work exactly ZERO times.

    No one is going to drive to downtown D.C., park, then get a train to go elsewhere. People will either take local subway or bus, or commuter trains, or get dropped off. The cost to park for several days would be astronomical, as it should be. There are suburban stations where Amtrak stops where one can park and get trains.

    The issue of why things cost so much and take forever to build is valid, however. China of course does not have that problem. “We’re building this, get out of the way, and no arguing.”

  23. “I get it. People don’t like cars. But that… limits access to trains, which is the point of the thing.”

    Land is too valuable downtown to be used for property storage.

    Parking is appropriate at suburban stations, like Metropark in NJ or Route 128 outside Boston. I guess the DC equivalent would be the BWI station. Land is cheaper, they are adjacent to major highways, and drivers arenn’t clogging up a busy downtown to reach the station.

    Not every station needs to cater to every traveler.

  24. One aspect that should be considered is demographics. Europe has unions. Even with unions holding things back, most workers take pride in getting a project done because it helps their people, their families, and themselves. It’s a source of national pride to build something used by people who look like them and share genetic heritage. In the U.S. one worker doesn’t care about some random project because he probably doesn’t use it, doesn’t benefit from it, and doesn’t care about national pride. A black guy doesn’t care about trains that benefit White people and vice versa. They just extract as much as possible from the job. America is too big. China is slightly bigger but has basically one type of people with some minor differences and a government that has one aim. 2680 miles coast to coast makes things difficult when the federal, state, and local bureaucratic layer get in the way.

  25. I remember reading in 2017 or 2018 an article in an English printed paper in China about the proposed additional runway in Heathrow airport.
    The journalist (obviously a Chinese Govt. pawn) wrote something like “While they discuss it for 5 years, in 5 years we (China) have built 50 new airports.”
    I am not saying I agree with this but it is clear that using democracy and rights to its extreme leads to the opposite of what is reasonably necessary for our welfare.

  26. DC resident here, you don’t need extra parking at Union Station because the people that are riding the trains are coming into the city for work. No one is driving into the city and parking at Union Station for a train. And the locals like myself take the metro (subway) to Union Station and then jump on a train (or bus) if necessary. Additional parking is not needed at Union Station. It would make an already congested city even worse.

  27. Not all US projects are bad, just look at the new SLC. Ground was broken in 2014, 2020 phase 1 was completed. Covid hit and they saw a chance to speed construction, shaving years and hundreds of millions of dollars off the total cost. I won’t stand for everything in the project, while functional I think they built an incredibly plain airport, but they did it pretty quickly.

  28. Liberals won’t care, but the inability of gov’t to complete construction projects in a timely manner is an excellent reason to elect DeSantis president. He actually “gets this.” After Hurricane Ian, some major islands (including Sanibel) were completely cut off from the mainland by severe bridge damage. Major repairs that would have taken months or years in most states were completed almost immediately in Florida. It was a truly heroic achievement. This is competent government that we almost never see in America. Competency is good.

  29. I don’t think reducing parking at Washington Union is the mistake the author claims. Reducing car trips is (one of) the point(s) of trains….not offering parking decks in urban centers. If someone’s willing to drive to the train station to take Amtrak, New Carlton is a pretty similar travel time to most people in the area, and a number of other options exist for getting to washington union, including simply getting on an NE Regional at a station in Virginia instead of in the middle of DC.

  30. It’s kind of disingenuous to talk about DC-area projects – like the Silver Line and Union Depot – and not note the complicated funding issues surrounding them. It’s not your standard “citizen participation” issue (whatever that means).

    WMATA (aka DC Metro) is funded by an interstate compact comprised of DC, Virginia, and Maryland – it has to pull money from its own ridership and the monies provided by the two states and DC (which are Federal monies, to boot, so there are separate Federal representatives in the mix). It has never been uncommon for the state houses of either state to play political football with Metro funding. Either a “Why should people in [far-corner-of-state] pay for DC commuters?” if a special tax is suggested, or just general bipartisan bargaining. Throw in the fact that DC’s budget is controlled by Congress on top of the Federal representatives in management? There’s a reason it started falling apart so badly – the money and cohesive management just wasn’t there. Planning something like the Silver Line had to go through many more hoops than a transit system that’s overseen by a single state (or in the case of NYC, a somewhat more cooperative set of states).

    Here’s a solid overview from 2016 (Gifted WaPo article – ) Basically, until MetroRail really started to fail visibly and very dangerously a decade or so ago that its issues started to be taken seriously.

    Union Station also falls under the whole Federal funding umbrella – the building is owned by the Department of Transportation and managed by a non-profit entity. But at the end of the day, it’s funding still falls prey to the whims of Congress…which have been less than actually whimsical over the past decade.

    As for the parking? I used to live in the DC suburbs and took Amtrak up to New England to visit family, or to visit Philly or NYC several times a year. I never parked at Union Depot, because I didn’t think it was necessary. I mostly used transit, took the occasional cab if I was going from my workplace when I worked downtown, or had a friend or family member give me rides to and from the station. I don’t think I know anyone who actually drove there, parked their car, and left it for the duration of their trip. It’s just not necessary, considering the fact it’s a major transit hub. MetroRail, MetroBus – with all the regional buses under that umbrella – VRE, and MARC all service Union Station along with Amtrak. (Admittedly, VRE and MARC are inbound in the AM and outbound in the PM, but still, they’re an option.) With the Silver Line finally up and running all the way to Dulles? There’s even less reason to have parking. As long as there is a well-designed area for private pick-ups and drop-offs and a taxi/rideshare/limo area, I don’t think a lack of a huge parking structure is a huge problem.

    And to be clear: I used to be an accessibility professional, and I’m the first one to pipe up if I think too much parking has been eliminated from a project – some people just need to come and go via private vehicles, or public transit is not actually up to the task of transporting as many people as the project indicates. But if your absolute hard line to taking Amtrak is “There isn’t abundant parking at Union Station”, I don’t think you’re deeply committed to taking Amtrak anyway.

  31. Big Govt and too much red tape.
    Recently rebuilt a new boathouse and dock in S FL, 5 different govt agencies had to sign off on it, such a hassle.

  32. This is such a tired topic, Gary. The current situation exists very much on purpose – in large part as a reaction of American society to the Urban Renewal of the 60s and 70s and epitomized in the persona of Robert Moses. After seeing at just how much power Moses held in NYC and how he was able to radically reshape it, communities and cities around the country vowed to erect every possible obstacle to prevent something of that scale to ever happen again. It was an understandable over-reaction that has persisted to this day but there should not really be any shock or surprise about why it exists. The diffusion of responsibility, countless bureaucratic obstacles, and local zoning boards that can be held hostage by a small numbers of NIMBYs is very much the entire point and successfully do what they were intended to: prevent any large or medium scale projects (and propagate single home over mixed zoning contributing to the home affordability crises). Add to this the growth of federal regulations and you get the debacles that you cite. The question should, thus, NOT be why such a situation exists but how and who is able to start addressing it!

  33. Cmon Gary, you should have spent more time simmering on this. You’ve been in Texas too long (this coming from a Texpat)…

    Federalism and respect for property rights is a huge obstacle that simply reduces friction in China and Europe. Environmental review in Europe is also very extensive. The difference is the number of levels of government that need to be pleased in the United States. You want to ignore people’s property rights, sure you can build a national highway network through eminent domain.

    You want to build a high speed rail line, of course you can if you seize private freight companies’ rails.

    I know it’s popular, but you cannot blame the EPA for issues that arise from federalism, the rule of law, respect for property rights, and politically jockeying.

  34. People will drive to the airport and park there.
    They’ll miss some fabulous train rides.

  35. Consider the success of Brightline here in Florida. In July it will open its connection to Orlando Airport from Miami. A trip from Miami to Orlando will take about 3-1/2 hours. Announced fare is $79 each way. Seats are comfortable, attendants are friendly and train speeds will reach 130 mph.

    I rode Brightline from West Palm Beach to Miami and back (that part is already open with trains every 30 minutes or so). It is a complete pleasure, especially when considering the nightmare of driving I-95 into or out of Miami.

    It uses existing (but upgraded) track from Florida East Coast Ry as far as Cocoa Beach before turning into newly built track into Orlando. Plans are to extend it to Tampa by 2028 and Jacksonville by 2030 or so.

    Why existing right of way in the Northeast Corridor can’t be upgraded for medium speed rail (130 mph) like Brightline is completely beyond me. Oh, wait – because it’s government owned.

  36. Very accurate assessment of why the US is losing our competitive edge to China and other nations. Building new or rehabilitating infrastructure takes decades longer than our competitor nations. The public puts up with infrastructure that is always over utilized and often in disrepair. As is typical in many situations, just follow the money. Most laws allow for the citizen (read environmental group or other NGO) to sue the Federal agency in charge if they feel the agency has not dotted every i and crossed every t. Teams of lawyers at these organizations are adept at finding some technicality to exploit and a friendly Federal judge to hear the case. Years of work goes down the drain and the process starts over. The icing on the cake is the environmental group can get paid for its expenses involved with suing the Federal agency. The public gets screwed twice. Once when they are sitting in a traffic jam or stuck on the tarmac due to a congested airport or paying more for consumer products due to inefficient transportation, or just having to lug up their bags up a broken escalator and then pays again when their tax dollars go to support some environmental group or other NGO they do not even agree with on policy.

Comments are closed.