Union Station overhaul and CTA Blue Line improvements could come, if federal grants are approved

Plans are underway for construction that could improve travel for Union Station riders, CTA Blue Line riders and Eisenhower Expressway riders.

State and local agencies seek grants from the recently approved federal infrastructure law for a review of Union Station and construction on I-290 and the Forest Park branch of the CTA Blue Line that runs along the expressway. The grants have not yet been approved, but if the projects move forward, they could ultimately speed Amtrak and Blue Line travel, and lay the groundwork for a broader reconstruction of the Eisenhower Expressway.

City, state, and federal officials recently called the Biden administration to approve the Union Station grant. Additional details about the proposed $418 million project show that it would include an overhaul of the station concourse level and the commissioning of at least three additional unused platforms to increase capacity.

The grant request, which would cover more than half the cost of the proposed project, comes as Amtrak seeks extend the service through the Midwest and out of Chicago, a major rail hub. Union Station served more than 3 million Amtrak passengers annually before the pandemic and also serves Metra passengers.

One step to accommodate the planned expansion is to go back to using the old platforms. Located near the Chicago River outside the station’s south concourse, they once served trains carrying U.S. Postal Service mail. Unused for years, the remains of booths and unnecessary station infrastructure lie decaying through along the platforms, where the support beams still have the numbers and destinations of the old routes written on their sides. The tracks next to it are used for train storage.

Rehabilitating the platforms and making them usable for passenger trains could nearly double Amtrak’s daily capacity in the south concourse, spokesman Marc Magliari said. It could also allow Amtrak to relocate some trains, such as the busy Hiawatha service to Milwaukee, from the north side of the station to the south, freeing up additional space outside the north concourse for Metra passengers.

Work on the station concourse would involve opening it up to improve passenger flow. Amtrak is looking for a designer for the project, and construction could begin as soon as 2025, if the funding comes through. The capacity of the platform would also be expanded.

The grant also provides for the construction of tracks outside of Union Station that is intended to shorten the running time of some trains and reorganize the tracks on which some trains run. Eventually, the work could create a path for service from O’Hare International Airport to McCormick Place.

The Illinois Department of Transportation and the CTA are also seeking about $660 million in federal funding for work along Eisenhower. CTA is looking to rebuild the Blue Line tracks from a location near the Austin station to Cicero Avenue. The work will eliminate slow zones along the tracks, allowing trains to travel at typical speeds and providing a smoother ride.

CTA is planning to rebuild the Austin and Cicero Blue Line stations to be fully handicapped accessible, part of an ongoing program to make all CTA stations accessiblespokesman Brian Steele said.

The grant application also includes work along Eisenhower to improve freeway drainage and help with flooding in nearby communities, IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castañeda said.

The drainage work would lay the groundwork for a long-discussed reconstruction, expansion and reconfiguration of parts of the highway, he said.

The larger rebuild is not yet funded and no timetable has been set to seek grant funding for the project. A 2017 estimate put the cost of rebuilding at $3.2 billion, and the price has likely increased since then, Castaneda said.

“We are closely watching the launch of financing options that will be included as part of the federal (infrastructure law),” he said in an email.

sfreishtat@chicagotribune.com

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