BOSTON (SHNS) – As legislative negotiators decide whether to authorize a relatively small investment in an underground rail link beneath downtown Boston, the project’s biggest supporter, former Gov. Michael Dukakis, is doing his best to sell the idea and round up the votes to pass it.
In an interview Monday with the News Service, Dukakis said House Speaker Robert DeLeo is among the roughly 140 members of the Legislature who have now either signed or co-signed an October 2012 letter in support of the project, counted new Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as behind the effort, and disputed an $8 billion cost estimate attached to the North South Rail Link project years ago, estimating it could be done for as little as $2 billion.
“It’s not a six or seven or eight billion-dollar project. That’s just nonsense,” Dukakis said when contacted after the state Senate included an appropriation related to the project in a multi-year transportation bond bill. He tied the high cost estimate to former Gov. Mitt Romney, who Dukakis said “never wanted to do it.”
Dukakis said underground rail tunnels “are being done all over the world” – in cities like London, Madrid and Zurich – and described an average cost of $900 million per mile, plus costs associated with approaches to terminals, in this case North Station and South Station in Boston. He said he would prefer that the link feature four tracks.
Dukakis and other project supporters say underground tunneling techniques have improved and prices for that type of work have come down in recent years. “You won’t even know these things are working down there,” he said. “It’s not as if people don’t know how to do this.”
The Senate plan, currently the subject of closed conference committee talks, authorizes $5 million to be spent to update environmental impact documents related to the project “in order to protect the corridor right-of-way.”
State transportation officials would be required under the Senate bill to map the right of way “to allow for the construction” of the link. The bill says the state Department of Transportation “shall make reasonable efforts to preserve intact the right of way” and says a preservation plan, once identified, shall be “implemented immediately.”
The House did not include North South Rail Link language in its transportation bond bill, but Dukakis is encouraged by the number of representatives who signed the letter to the Federal Railroad Administration which includes Senate Transportation Committee Chair Thomas McGee but not House chairman Rep. William Straus.
In the letter, lawmakers argue costly track expansion efforts won’t be needed if a link is built, which they say will afford more seamless travel, take cars off of roadways, and boost the state’s economic competitiveness, its business climate and the tourism industry. In the request for the feds to make the link a key component of its environmental impact statement for Northeast corridor high-speed rail, lawmakers pointed to the problem the link would solve – passengers needing to take cabs or the subway to get from one Boston transportation hub to the other.
“The North-South Station Rail Link is of paramount importance to the development of high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor,” the lawmakers wrote. “While construction of and improvements to major stations is underway in key NEC cities such as Washington D.C., New York City, Baltimore and Providence, we see much less progress being made in Massachusetts. The rail link between North and South Stations will provide the necessary infrastructure for a gateway station to boost ridership from Boston through New Hampshire and into Maine, bringing Massachusetts up to speed with the rest of the region.”
“JUST TOO EXPENSIVE TO CONSIDER”
Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer said the business-backed group has not taken a position on the rail link project, but called it “far too expensive to ever imagine it would be built.”
Massachusetts lawmakers in 2013 opted for a much smaller package of new taxes to pay for transportation investments than Gov. Patrick had sought.
“It will be at least four or five or six billion dollars,” Widmer said. “We simply don’t have those funds. In theory, would it be desirable? Yes. The reality is, where are we going to get that money? There’s a general sentiment that it’s just too expensive to consider.”
A spokesman for the Massachusetts Business Roundtable said the group has not taken a position on the project.
Dukakis believes the link would produce $200 million in new passenger revenue and help the state save money on maintenance expenditures while solving congestion problems by introducing “through service.”
While Dukakis says those revenues and savings could finance the project, another rail link supporter, Richard Arena, president of the advocacy group Association for Public Transportation and a board member of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, estimated project costs at $4 billion and said the state’s share of that may be about 20 percent.
Arena says New York is “about to pass Massachusetts in terms of tech” and said Massachusetts and New England trail New York City, Washington D.C. and Baltimore in investments in high-speed rail. Those mid-Atlantic areas are making the investments as part of economic development strategies.
“Almost nothing has happened in New England or Boston. There has been insufficient leadership, let me be kind,” said Arena, who said he has lived in Boston for most of his life.
“Everybody’s afraid that Massachusetts is going to be stuck with paying. We’ll probably have to pay 20 percent. The Northeast Corridor is a national treasure. There will be a government share. How that works out remains to be seen. Nobody south of us is waiting for that. They are moving ahead.”
The area between North Station and South Station underwent the Big Dig, an expensive highway project that ended a little less than a decade ago. The project removed an elevated portion of Interstate 93, sending the highway along a new route below city streets and a new urban park.
James RePass, chairman of the National Corridors Initiative, a self-described business and environmental transportation advocacy group, predicted a rail link would be “transformative” and would help employers trying to find skilled workers to fill good-paying jobs.
“I hope the Legislature sees it that way too,” said RePass, a South Boston resident.
The project’s cost is daunting, with estimates exceeding the costs associated with extending commuter rail service to New Bedford and Fall River, running the Green Line up from Boston into Somerville and Medford, or expanding South Station, three of the largest projects in line for funding under the pending state transportation bond bills.
While acknowledging that “people were so traumatized by the Big Dig” and remain “skittish,” Dukakis says he’s encouraged by levels of support for the rail link from people north of Boston and from members of the Congressional delegation.
“I’m feeling pretty good about this,” said Dukakis, who is recovering this week from cataract surgery. “It’s all about coalition building. It’s all about pulling folks together.”
Kristina Egan, executive director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, said the organization has not taken a position on the Senate initiative.
“Our overall position is it’s smart to keep the option open,” Egan said. “The planning should incorporate the ability at some time in the future to build that link. We don’t want to foreclose opportunities.”
A “VERY SIGNIFICANT CHANGE IN THINGS”
Dukakis said he’s been unable to persuade Gov. Deval Patrick to endorse the project but pointed to support from Walsh and DeLeo. Walsh is getting started on his four-year term at City Hall and with Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray leaving their positions after this year, DeLeo is poised next year to become the most senior official in the powerful triumvirate at the State House that over the years has come to be known as the Big Three.
“The Speaker is strongly for the project, always has been,” Dukakis said. “You have a mayor who wants this.” Support from those two key players, he said, represents a “very significant change in things.” A DeLeo aide confirmed Monday that the Winthrop Democrat strongly supports the rail link.
The former governor and 1988 Democratic nominee for president, Dukakis said he plans to meet soon with Walsh to discuss the project and will pitch the possibility of the rail link making the city’s innovation district more accessible to travelers arriving from the north.
High-speed rail service could lead to economic benefits in Boston, New Hampshire, Maine and beyond. “The Montreal-Boston connection with a high-speed train would be huge economic benefit for both cities,” he said.
In a December 2013 letter to Walsh’s transition team, Dukakis called Boston’s gap in the rail corridor “absolutely ridiculous,” adding, “If somebody suggested that we stop the Red Line at South Station and resume at Kendall, we would think he had gone mad but that is precisely the situation that we currently confront with commuter rail.”
Dukakis also wrote that original Big Dig plans included rail “down the middle of it.”
“Unfortunately, the opposition of the Reagan administration proved too much to overcome at the time,” he wrote. “We tore up the city, took forever and double the funds to build the Big Dig, and never got our rail connection.”