North-South Rail Link would be an investment in core MBTA system, Dukakis says

A commuter rail car sits at South Station.
A commuter rail car sits at South Station. –The Boston Globe

Gov. Charlie Baker says his top priority for the MBTA is to fix the existing system — not expand it. That priority has been seen as at-odds with new projects, like the North-South Rail Link, which would connect North and South stations.

“We’ll do the study [on the project]. We’ll see what it says. But I really want the investment to be in the core system,” Baker recently said of the proposal.

That’s a false dichotomy, argues former Gov. Michael Dukakis — one of two Baker predecessors who has been advocating for the project since last summer. In an interview Monday, Dukakis said building the North-South Rail Link would boost the rest of the T by allowing commuter rail trains from north of the city to continue south and vice versa.

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“No project that we’re talking about would have a greater impact on the core system than this one,” Dukakis said. “For one thing, it will have a dramatic impact on getting cars off the road. And secondly, it will significantly reduce the number of people who today get off at North Station or South Station, have to make a change or two on the [subway]. And that’s a problem these days too — the congestion of the T. If that’s not helping the core system, I don’t know what is.”

So far, the Baker administration, which has made improving the core transit system a doctrine since 2015’s winter weather exposed major T issues just weeks into the start of the governor’s term, has agreed to conduct a feasibility study for the project at a cost of $2 million.

But Politico Massachusetts on Monday reported that advocates and the state Department of Transportation have yet to agree on what the study should encompass. Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack said advocates have asked for a study so broad that it would cost more than the state is ready to spend.

Dukakis said he’s open to a scaled-down study. “If [Pollack] thinks the scope is a little too — OK, fine, trim it down. We don’t want to keep sitting around here,” he told State House News Service Monday.

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Advocates for the project on Monday held a public event at the State House, where they heard from representatives of Herrenknecht, a German company that makes tunneling machines. Two executives talked about the company’s projects in other parts of the world. Dukakis and other project backers have argued since resurrecting the rail link as a public policy idea last year that technology advancements have made tunneling cheaper, easier, and less disruptive.

The costs are likely front-of-mind for many observers of the rail link, having just seen one major regional transit project — the Green Line extension — flirt with extinction due to budget problems. Additionally, tunneling in particular has been a touchy subject in Boston ever since the Big Dig’s cost overruns. Though the project transformed the region’s transportation patterns as well as Boston real estate, it “still prompts justifiable caution” about tunneling costs, Brad Bellows, an architect and project proponent, said at Monday’s presentation.

Herrenknecht’s president for America, Jack Brockway, said that tunneling costs have a number of variables and said he could not make a projection for the North-South Rail Link. Former Gov. Mitt Romney’s administration once pegged the project’s costs at about $8 billion. Dukakis doesn’t buy that number.

“The $8 billion figure that came out of the Romney administration is a joke,” he said. “We’re not talking $8 billion. It’s absurd.”

Project supporters see some urgency to the rail-link discussion, because they think it could be undermined by the Baker-supported plan to expand South Station with more tracks. Dukakis thinks the rail link would make the expansion unnecessary, because the thruway would address the capacity issues the new tracks are meant to solve. And while state officials have said both the expansion and the rail link should be considered on their own, Dukakis believes that if the state spends to expand South Station there won’t be much appetite for also building the link any time soon.

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“You spend $2 billion on South Station expansion, the link is dead in my opinion,” he said.

Project advocates think the rail link would generate 96,000 new train trips per day. Dukakis said one advantage is that it would allow, for example, people who live on the South Shore to work on the North Shore.

Last week, outgoing MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola told Boston Herald Radio said he doesn’t think it would convenience more than a small percentage of riders. Instead, he said, Amtrak and its passengers would be the real beneficiary, because Boston would no longer interrupt trips headed north or south of the city.

DePaola said he does not support the project for that reason.

“I think what people are looking at is, they envision the potential of through-rail traffic, through Boston, north up to New Hampshire, Maine, and from New Hampshire, Maine south to Boston and to other states,” he said. “I don’t see where it’s the Commonwealth’s obligation to invest billions of dollars to facilitate regional rail traffic.”

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