Baker hears rail link pitches from Dukakis, Weld

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Written by Matt Murphy and Colin A. Young

STATE HOUSE — Gov. Charlie Baker did not rule out his administration embarking on a rail tunnel project to link North Station and South Station on Wednesday, but the Republican appeared at odds with Gov. Michael Dukakis over whether an expansion of South Station and the rail link were mutually exclusive projects.

Baker met for about an hour on Wednesday with Dukakis and his mentor and former boss Gov. William Weld to discuss the North-South rail link, which could allow for uninterrupted rail service from Montreal to Washington D.C.

[Watch: Baker On Rail Link]

Dukakis, a Democrat, and Weld, a Republican, have found common ground on the issue that neither was able to advance during their time in office. Both are hoping to convince Baker that the project is a worthwhile endeavor that would unlock the eastern rail corridor and reduce congestion at Boston’s two transit hubs and on the roadways.

“This is a lot of money, taxpayer money, and a lot of people call me skeptical when I get into these conversations. I’m not being skeptical. I’m being cautious. There’s a difference,” Baker said, meeting with reporters separately from Dukakis after the meeting in his office.

Baker described the conversation as “very interesting” and said he would treat the project with the “respect” it deserves. “I certainly have some homework to do,” he said.

While Baker has held meetings about a separate project to expand South Station that would first require the relocation of the Post Office building next door to the commuter rail and Amtrak hub, his administration has not greenlighted the South Station expansion that was included in a bond authorization approved last year by the Legislature. He did, however, speak enthusiastically about the potential to open Dorchester Avenue and create development opportunities along the “canal.”

“I don’t think it has to be one or the other,” Baker said.

Dukakis, however, said an expansion of South Station would be unnecessary if the state were to press ahead with a tunnel linking North and South stations. The former governor described the choice as between a North-South rail link or separately expanding both stations, which he said are equally struggling with congestion.

[Watch: Dukakis On Rail Link]

“What do you need South Station expansion for if you connect two stations? You’ll have unlimited capacity,” Dukakis said. “You won’t have unlimited capacity with another seven tracks, folks. They’ll fill up in four, five, six years and you’ll have the same problem all over again. It makes no sense at all.”

The next steps for Baker will be have his team review the reports presented by Dukakis, Weld and Brad Bellows, the architect member of an advisory committee on the link appointed by Weld. The governor said he has heard estimates of the project costing between $2 billion and $4 billion, but wants to review those estimates and other details of the proposals.

Weld and Dukakis did urge Baker to authorize $2 million in spending already approved by the House and Senate to update draft environmental impact statements and reports concerning the North-South Rail Link to identify and protect the rail link right of way. Baker said he would need to review that further, because it might be based on assumptions that were made before the Big Dig.

Dukakis and Weld plan in the less than two weeks to announce the formation of a working groups with developers, labor and others to advocate for and help move the North-South rail link project forward. The group will hold its first meeting at the State House on Sept. 21 at noon, Dukakis said.

“This is not the Big Dig, folks,” the former governor said. “This is very different.”

Weld slipped out of the building without speaking to reporters after the meeting.

While Dukakis claimed strong support from more than two-thirds of the Legislature, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee is not among them.

Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat, said to ensure a relatively flat grade the tunnel openings would need to be about 3 to 4 miles apart, meaning the MBTA’s fleet of diesel trains could not use it. Baker said it is “unclear” whether diesel cars could run in the tunnel, which he said would go from Widett Circle to north of the Mystic River.

Straus, who supports the complex South Station expansion proposal, which is seen as a precursor to bringing rail service to his South Coast district, said the link would be expensive and problematic.

“For many years I’ve been extremely cautious, then skeptical, then come to the conclusion that the North-South Rail Link is a project that if it made sense 100 years ago it certainly does not make sense today,” Straus told the News Service.

Straus said a new tunnel would be open to flooding risk at a time when people are concerned about sea level rise and more intense storms. Dukakis said tunnels can be protected from flooding more easily than infrastructure on the ground, and he said connecting the two structures would obviate the need for separate layover and maintenance facilities and make the South Station expansion plan irrelevant.

“There’s not an option not to build,” Dukakis said.

Arguing that cities around the world, including Philadelphia and Los Angeles, have either finished or are constructing similar rail tunnels to link stations, Dukakis said an older version of the tunneling technology that would be used to construct the rail link was used to build the Red Line extension to Alewife and has been used many times by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

“It’s not as if we haven’t done this,” he said. “We’re not strangers to this.”

Dukakis called the technology used to construct such tunnels “remarkable” and said that the cost of rail tunnel projects is “dropping dramatically” because of advances in the technology.

The North-South Rail Link would be cost-effective, said Dukakis, who pointed out several times that his administration completed $3 billion of construction on the MBTA, all on time and on budget.

“This is a project that, effectively, with the federal loan money at three percent (interest), can probably pay for itself,” Dukakis said. “There will be significant increases in passenger revenue. We’ll have thousands and thousands of new passengers who today simply won’t take commuter rail because they have to make two or three transfers. And there will be significantly reduced maintenance expenses; you don’t need two maintenance shops, one at one side one at the other, when you connect the two.”

Copyright State House News Service