Columbus Circle, the front yard of Union Station, is finally getting a much-needed rehabilitation thanks to the District Department of Transportation, Union Station Redevelopment Corp. and the National Park Service.
The problems with the current arrangement of Columbus Circle, built in 1912, four years after Union Station was completed, are well known.
Pedestrians alighting from Union Station and its accompanying Metro stop, supposedly the grand entrance to the District, are met with ugly Jersey barriers placed after 9-11, forced to walk across the crumbling fountains, brickwork, pavers and impromptu dirt paths where the grass has gone untended, then cross several lanes of traffic consisting of taxicabs, tour buses and the occasional D.C. Duck.
Navigating around Columbus Circle on Massachusetts Ave. was no picnic either for motorists. Bone-shaking potholes along the Circle made a cab ride from Union Station an often-unpleasant introduction to tourists visiting the nation's Capital.
Worse, pedestrians, mostly well-dressed young Capitol Hill staffers, would often emerge from the chin-high hedgerows at the edge of the Circle and dart across Mass. Ave seemingly at random. At night it was even worse, as battered and rusting Washington Globe streetlights cast long shadows across the Circle, making the traverse from Capitol Hill to Union Station a sketchy encounter at best.
The key to Columbus Circle's restoration is rerouting of traffic, with the removal of a central service lane that cuts the Columbus plaza and fountain off from Massachusetts Ave. The service lane will be filled in with brick and pavers, and pedestrian access widened in certain spots and narrowed in others, encouraging walkers to stay off the grass and not take shortcuts. The new Columbus Circle will eliminate the bottleneck at the east end as cabs and passenger cars merged from the hairpin turn of the service lane onto Mass Ave. Now there will be simply a conventional four way intersection on the west end. Drivers on Mass. Ave, which is increasingly becoming a high-speed artery with 20,000 cars traveling on it a day in both directions, will be able to take advantage of wider lanes as well.
The shrubs at the edge of Columbus Plaza will be removed, and pedestrian islands along the north and south sides of Massachusetts Ave. will be widened. Lighting along Mass. Ave, First Street NE and Columbus Plaza will also be improved, including new lighting for the fountains and flag posts. The National Park Service will also repair the often-dormant Columbus Fountain and its smaller twin sisters at either end of the Plaza with new piping and pumps.
Finally, a new line of security bollards guarding the entrance to Union Station will replace the temporary Jersey barriers.
The rehab by Parsons Transportation Group (which performed the architecture and engineering for Union Station's bike station) and Capitol Paving is more than seven years in the making. But like restoration to Union Station itself, with a hodgepodge of agencies, including Amtrak, Metro, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission all claiming turf, the process was painfully slow. The initial plans came together in 2004 but work only started last September and won't be complete until February 2013 at a cost of $7.8 million.
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