Stranded at the Station… St.Paul’s restored Union Depot
Now if you’ve been reading this blog a while, you’ve probably noted that I an unapologetic promoter of rail transportation, both freight and passenger. For example, I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the 5 billion dollar CREATE project that will untangle Chicago’s rail traffic jams. Why? Because, literally, passengers and shippers and customers all over America will benefit from untangling Chicago’s clogged rails where it often takes a day or more for a train just to get across town. So even if you live in South Dakota and will never ever ride a train, that UPS shipment from the east coast you’re waiting for will get there faster thanks to the CREATE project.
Now if you’ve paid any attention to the media for hundreds of miles around, you’re no doubt aware that the newly restored St.Paul Union Depot (“SPUD”, as the railroaders refer to it) reopened today. It’s a lovely restoration that’s produced a work of art typical of the grand old union depot genre… And given that they spent a quarter billion dollars on it, it damn well better be magnificent!
Why the $250,000,000 cost to restore a building of not quite 100,000 square feet? Why did the square foot cost run over double the cost for new construction? Well, for a start, trains have gotten taller since the station last hosted them, so they tore out a few thousand cubic yards of concrete basement and parking ramp below the rails, then built a whole new structure at the level they needed. Having done the basic construction, they moved on to gilding the lily, even going as far as to over restore the already restored headhouse in the process. Yup, it looks lovely, but this was a working passenger station, not an art museum.
Now a quarter billion dollars might be justified to build or rebuild a major rail hub like New York, Washington, LA, or Chicago Union station- those stations see dozens and even hundreds of trains a day. But SPUD is unlikely to become much of a working station anytime soon… Amtrak’s Empire Builder will stop by twice daily, and the Central Corridor light rail line will stop out front. But passengers will have little reason to enter the station, in fact it looks like Amtrak will be stuck in a glorified pole building along the tracks… God forbid that actual railroad passengers used the depot! Metro Transit buses will call too, and it’ll be nice for the drivers to have a better place to relieve themselves at their turnaround.
Be nicer still if the drivers and passengers could grab a bite to eat, but they kicked out Greek themed eatery Cristos during the restoration. The cafeteria in the former Main Post Office next door succumbed to the expensive closing of that now empty building and the construction of a whole new Post Office in the ‘burbs. And with construction costs per square foot over twice that of typical new construction, this will probably be the most expensive retail rental in town.
And with much of the funding for passenger rail sucked up by showpiece stations like SPUD and Minneapolis new 80 million dollar supersized bus shelter, there isn’t much dollars left to fund actual trains. Fact is, the same quarter billion dollars that SPUD sucked up funded the 40 miles long Northstar Commuter Rail across town, including trains and stations. And if SPUDs promoters had ever looked at the problems of getting trains in and out of there- The aforementioned clearance problems, stub ended tracks, and Federal Railroad Administration disapproval of trains backing out of the station onto a busy main line- They might have built their station somewhere else.
But I hope a lot of folks got to view the restored SPUD at today’s grand opening… Because they may not get a chance again. After the crowds have cleared, the station will be pretty quiet. Maybe after a couple years of low to zero rental occupancy, they’ll offer fire sale rental rates… And an under capitalized coffee shop or three will move in then fail due to lack of customers. Eventually SPUD’s owners, Ramsey County, will tire of the security costs of their near empty depot and close it for a few more decades…