North-South rail link: the next Big Dig?

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When two former governors team up to pressure the current occupant of that office to spend tax dollars, working families should hold onto their wallets. Knowing those ex-governors as the bipartisan founding fathers of the Big Dig, taxpayers should prepare for a red-ink tsunami.

Three-term Democrat Mike Dukakis and twice-elected Republican Bill Weld have joined forces lobbying Governor Charlie Baker to construct a one-mile train tunnel connecting North Station and South Station. For Dukakis, another Boston tunnel is practically déjà vu, as this North-South rail link constituted part of his original transportation dreamscape, until the federal government nixed the price tab.

An exponent of ever-expanding, taxpayer-funded projects, Dukakis has apparently never dropped the tunnel from his wishlist. But then, Dukakis has never hidden his technocratic bent for bigger government. The quirky Weld, on the other hand, finds inspiration from his youthful days traveling to-and-fro boarding school. As a mere lad, he had to haul himself from one train terminal to the other, interrupting an otherwise idyllic journey between his New York home and Middlesex School in Concord. What’s a few billion taxpayer dollars to extinguish such a nightmarish childhood memory?

Mainstream journalists often mislabel Weld a libertarian, confusing his idiosyncrasies for a coherent political philosophy. Focusing on his unorthodox blend of social liberalism, pro-business policies, and pre-Tea Party anti-tax rhetoric, they overlook his propensity for expansive government action on the Big Dig. Whatever the long-term value of the Big Dig, it surely stands — or sinks — as a monumental testament to the dire warnings of genuine libertarians about bloated government.

Local media frequently refers to Weld and Dukakis as the political odd couple. Given their visible height differences and contrasting personal styles, that description fits. When campaigning to succeed the Duke in 1990, Weld never missed a chance to blast the Duke’s whopping hike of the income tax from 5 percent to 5.95 percent. Once in office, Weld found himself in the enviable sweet spot of spending the revenue generated by the unpopular tax hike that helped elect him.

Although Weld defies easy political characterization, both he and Dukakis shared a gift for fuzzy math when underestimating the cost of the Big Dig. Although government estimates originally put the cost of the Big Dig at under $3 billion; today it’s closing in on (take your pick) $15 billion to $25 billion, after the bonds are retired in 2038. Whichever number one prefers, there’s no off ramp for harried taxpayers.

Coincidentally, the current guesstimate for the North Station-South Station tunnel also tallies to the $3 billion range, an ominous figure for taxpayers burdened by prior Big Dig miscalculations.

One person who understood excessive spending was Republican President Ronald Reagan. His prescient warnings and veto pen lost the Congressional Big Dig battle to the Massachusetts delegation led by Sen. Ted Kennedy and Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. Undoubtedly, the experts surrounding incumbent Governor Dukakis and his successor Bill Weld chortled at Reagan’s naive and simplistic unwillingness to accept their sophisticated assurances about constructing the unwieldy project “on time and on budget.”

The Big Dig has re-emerged in multiple reports, particularly in The Boston Herald, concerning faulty nuts in lighting fixtures, as well as an unanticipated leakage expected to drain taxpayers for decades to come. Designed to be permanently sealed, the walls to the Big Dig tunnels allow millions of gallons of water to seep through every year. As usual, the state’s taxpayers get tossed into the deep end, ponying up about $7 million dollars annually to repair the “waterproof” system.

Even the spendthrift Obama Administration is turning a deaf ear. Despite the Commonwealth’s politicians demand for funding through the Tunnel Project Trust Fund, Obama’s Federal Highway Administration has remained unmoved. Taking a page from the Gipper’s handbook, the Administration has shut off the spigot, refusing to pay for poorly designed leaky walls.

Governor Baker has reason to be wary of his predecessors’ taxpayer-funded pipe dream. Admittedly, Baker earned his great political opportunity when Weld appointed him Secretary of Human Services and Secretary of Administration and Finance. In the powerful A&F slot, he carried water for the Weld and Cellucci Administrations and their creative financing of the Big Dig. During his first campaign for governor in 2010, a devastating television spot criticized these costly “schemes,” undermining Baker’s all-important fiscal credibility.

Baker has every reason to feel grateful to Weld for his early government appointments. He also has concrete reasons to doubt his mentor’s fiscal prudence when pushing for tunnels through Boston. Possessing management skills far superior to Dukakis or Weld, Gov. Baker will likely reject their proposal for another big dig. For the moment, taxpayers can rest easy.

Joseph Tortelli is a freelance writer.


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