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Donald C. Fry: Need to make Penn Station welcoming

For Baltimore’s deteriorating, 102-year-old Penn Station, a chronic sore subject for city leaders and for the region’s business executives who travel the railroad’s Northeast corridor, a long-sought revitalization is under way, according to the top Amtrak executive for the corridor.

Amtrak will make more than $850,000 worth of short-term improvements to the station this year, including renovating its restrooms, creating an outdoor plaza on the station’s Charles Street side and making the train platform area more visually appealing, Stephen Gardner, vice president of Northeast corridor infrastructure and investment development, told Greater Baltimore Committee leaders, city officials and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings at a March 8 meeting.

Also, a compelling long-term vision for the station is emerging.

Amtrak is responding to recent vocal advocacy by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Cummings and the GBC for a plan to dramatically improve what is, in effect, Baltimore’s front door to rail travelers.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from this group,” Gardner said. “We’re taking this task very seriously. Baltimore is absolutely at the top of our list.”

Amtrak has already completed more than $7 million in station improvements, from heating and air conditioning upgrades to new concourse windows and refurbished ceilings, floors and platform lighting, Gardner said.

The restroom renovations are scheduled to begin in July and be completed in winter 2013. The outdoor Penn Station Plaza, featuring flowers and umbrella-covered tables and chairs modeled after Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station plaza, is projected to be completed this summer. New landscaping, including a Baltimore welcome sign and high-definition flat-screen display funded by the Downtown Partnership and Visit Baltimore, is planned for the train platform area by fall 2013.

Impressive vision

Amtrak’s longer-term vision for the facility incorporates a modern canopy roof over the train platforms, modeled after new stations elsewhere, and transit-oriented development that could potentially encompass more than seven acres in and around the station.

The vision for the station emerging from Amtrak and from Beatty Development Group, affiliate Harbor Point Holdings and architects Ayers Saint Gross — who are guiding Amtrak’s planning process — is impressive.

In addition to compelling ideas for the station and land around it, Amtrak and planners envision a “greening” project along miles of track through northeast Baltimore to address less-than-attractive views of deteriorating buildings and clutter that currently greet Amtrak passengers arriving from the north. For more than two years, this gateway to Penn Station has been a focus of the GBC and a collaboration among multiple city agencies.

But it’s important to remember that, beyond the restroom renovation and the more than $7 million in station improvements either completed or currently under way, a master plan for Penn Station’s rebirth is still conceptual. It must be fleshed out.

There are significant fiscal challenges along the way of converting an encouraging vision into an actual economic catalyst. Costs to implement the vision have yet to be estimated. But, whatever they are, financing the station’s revitalization will occur in an extremely competitive fiscal arena.

Amtrak operates in an environment of tight funding. It is primarily dependent on a federal funding process driven by Congress that is “long and arduous,” Gardner said. The railroad has massive operational demands and a huge capital deficit, he added.

Up and down Amtrak’s Northeast corridor, projects are competing with one another for a limited amount of capital. Among those projects critical to future passenger operations is the replacement of the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel immediately south of Penn Station. Replacing that 140-year-old tunnel will cost an estimated $1.2 billion, Gardner said.

Meanwhile, office, residential and retail development in and around Penn Station will need to attract several billion dollars in private-sector investment. The challenge is to create value to attract financing when other projects are competing for private capital, said Michael Beatty, president of Beatty Development Group.

Amtrak’s challenge is to match its primary focus on railroad assets and operational capabilities with opportunities for development, Gardner said.

Attitude important

Implementing a compelling long-term vision at Penn Station could create “an incredible new arrival to our city,” Beatty said.

Although gaining funding for major capital projects is always a long, uphill battle, it is equally important that Amtrak recognize that a basic tenet of cleanliness, order and customer service are not as much an issue of dollars, but rather an attitude that needs to be directed from the top of the organization.

Cummings emphasized the importance to Baltimore and the region of revitalizing Penn Station. “We’ve got to do better than this,” he said of the existing station, noting that it’s a measurement by which visitors judge Baltimore.

“I hope that we can figure out a way to get from plans to reality,” he said.

Amtrak and its planning and development partners have made a good start toward converting a resource that had become a liability back into a valuable operational and economic asset.

As it is with most projects that get off to encouraging starts, from here it will be all about next steps, follow-through and ensuring a productive partnership among Amtrak, Baltimore and its business community.

Donald C. Fry, president & CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His e-mail address is