STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 22, 2016….With a final decision far off, the chief advocate for building a train tunnel beneath downtown Boston and the skeptical Baker administration agree on the next steps towards advancing that proposal.
“I don’t think we’re disagreeing on much of anything at this point,” former Gov. Michael Dukakis told reporters after meeting with Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack in the State House on Wednesday.
“No. We had a great conversation. I think we now are both clear that we’re both thinking in the same timeframe,” Pollack concurred. She said, “We’re putting it back on the table and we’re studying it.”
Gov. Charlie Baker has expressed skepticism about the cost and benefits of the North-South Rail Link, a train tunnel below Boston with stops at North and South stations. The project would link the region’s bifurcated commuter rail systems and give Amtrak travelers a straight shot through Boston to New Hampshire and Maine.
Pollack on Wednesday said the project should be re-evaluated so that it can be considered along with other longer-term proposals, such as the expansion of South Station, construction of rail links to New Bedford and Fall River and a commuter rail station in Allston, which would be done as part of re-routing Interstate 90.
“For these longer-term investments we’re really not about deciding today which ones we’re doing and which ones we’re not. But we need to bring all of them to a level where we have a process for studying them,” Pollack said. She said she didn’t see expansion of South Station as being in “competition” with the rail link.
Dukakis has previously said he thought Baker was receiving bad advice about North-South Rail, but on Wednesday he qualified that somewhat.
“I thought he was getting bad advice when he said that this wasn’t a core project. I mean this has a lot to do with the core. I’m not saying it’s got to be done tomorrow, but you’ve got a congestion problem with those two stations,” Dukakis said. The former governor also agreed with the idea of expanding South Station as long as it is in conjunction with the tunnel link. He said, “Nobody on the planet earth is expanding 19th century stub-end stations. They’re connecting them.”
At a recent New England Council breakfast Baker remarked on the novelty of Pollack and Dukakis, two former Northeastern University colleagues and transit activists, differing on expansion of South Station and the proposed rail link.
“Governor Dukakis says if you do that you don’t need to do the South Station expansion. This is where politics and business is just funny. Stephanie Pollack, who is our secretary of transportation and who is somebody who spent 10 years at the Conservation Law Foundation and most of the most recent past working at the Dukakis Center at Northeastern with Governor Dukakis – is kind of on my side on the question of whether or not the South Station expansion would have to happen. She believes it does. I would love to hear those two talking about that these days,” Baker told the business executives. He said, “I don’t see a scenario where not expanding South Station ultimately makes sense. I mean that will certainly be part of the review, but when Governor Dukakis says we don’t need to expand South Station. I kind of think we do for a whole bunch of other reasons.”
A major impediment to expanding South Station is the U.S. Post Office facility next to the current tracks. Pollack said expansion could reopen Dorchester Avenue along the Fort Point Channel, clear the way for new development in the area and address “the completely deficient signal system that Amtrak runs that’s already failed twice on us in the last few months.”
“It’s not an either or for us,” Pollack said. She said the state would file the final environmental impact statement for the expansion.
The Baker administration had already agreed to move ahead on a study of the idea before Dukakis and Pollack met on Wednesday. Pollack said she hopes to go out to bid for a study in early July.
Dukakis, who embarked on the multi-year Big Dig project to bury Boston’s highways along roughly the same route as the North-South Rail Link, said his transportation secretary persuaded him to back the highway project by including a rail link.
“If the truth be known, Fred Salvucci sold me on the Big Dig when he said to me, ‘And we’re going to have a double rail line right down the middle of it that will finally connect North and South station,'” Dukakis said.
Joined at times by former Gov. Bill Weld – now the Libertarian Party’s candidate for vice president – Dukakis has made a sustained pitch for the project to the current governor. Dukakis, who served three gubernatorial terms in the 1970s and 1980s, said there is precedent for a former governor playing a policy-making role as he appointed one of his predecessors, Frank Sargent, to chair a task force on cleaning up Boston Harbor.
“Sadly his doctors after several months told him that he couldn’t even do that,” Dukakis recalled. “But Frank Sargent was an enthusiastic chair of that task force and it led directly to the [Massachusetts Water Resources Authority] and the spectacular improvement in the harbor, so I’m all for involving former governors if they want to be involved.”
[Antonio Caban contributed reporting]
Copyright 2016 State House News Service