Moulton: Rail link ‘far smarter’ than station expansion

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STATE HOUSE — Rep. Seth Moulton is working to build support among the Bay State’s Congressional delegation for a substantial study into building an underground rail link between North and South stations.

The Salem Democrat met with avid project advocate and former governor Michael Dukakis on Monday and also circulated a letter in favor of a study.

“What I support more than anything is studying the North-South Rail Link seriously,” said Moulton, who told the News Service it appears “far smarter” than expanding the two Boston rail hubs to boost capacity.

Moulton has some experience in railway construction. He said he was the project manager for a high-speed rail linking Houston to Dallas.

An aide to Congressman Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat, said he is supportive of Moulton’s effort.

Citing the cost and complications of building under the heart of Boston, the various other projects vying for capital dollars and the potential need for a whole new fleet of locomotives, Gov. Charlie Baker has expressed caution about moving ahead on the North-South Rail Link.

“The big question with this is how many riders, how much does it cost and does it really help us at all with respect to some of the congestion questions, and would that be the best use of the next available dollar relative to a whole bunch of projects people would like to see us do?” Baker asked when questioned Monday about the proposal.

A 2014 bond bill authorized $2 million for updates to the project’s draft environmental impact statement and the draft environmental impact report. On Monday, Baker said the “full blown environmental impact review” seems “a bit much.” The governor said an independent review “should probably be done.”

“It will be part of the planning process as we go forward and it’ll be put up against other projects that have other reasons for being on the list and we’ll do the best we can to pick the ones that are in the best interests of the riding community and the taxpayers,” Baker said.

John Businger, a former state representative from Brookline who said he was vice chairman of the group that worked on official environmental documents associated with the project, criticized Baker’s remarks on the study and said by completing the environmental study the state would take a crucial step in securing the right-of-way.

“It’s peanuts,” Businger told the News Service. He said, “He could tell the public whether or not he wants to protect the right of way.”

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Straus has several concerns about what he said would be a three-mile tunnel where passengers would need to travel more than 100 feet underground to board trains at North and South stations.

“We’re talking a project that ten years ago was at a projected cost of $4 to $8 billion,” said Straus, who supports the expansion of South Station – a project complicated by a U.S. Postal Facility right next to the railway station.

Capacity at South Station – which could be increased by either the expansion or the rail link – would be a necessary component of the South Coast Rail project to Straus’s district, a project he and other lawmakers in the New Bedford, Fall River and Taunton areas support.

“It would be a huge plus for South Coast,” said Dukakis, who said trains could run from New Bedford, through Boston, and on to Lowell.

Dukakis, whose name now graces the Governor Michael S. Dukakis South Station Transportation Center, opposes the expansion, an alternative to the rail link that he said would leave intact the problem of two separate rail systems north and south of the city.

“Do not expand the Dukakis Station in any way, shape or form. It’s the only reason I went along with it. I said, ‘Wow, if it’s my station, then I can say, “Don’t expand the station,'”” Dukakis told reporters.

“From an engineering standpoint it doesn’t make South Coast Rail easier or harder,” Straus said of the proposed rail link in place of the expansion. Straus said even setting the cost aside, he believes the rail link is not a better option than expansion.

Dismissing the notion that Congress would view the rail link as a potential repeat of the costly Big Dig, Dukakis said the technology to drill the tunnel has been widely used and the work would be imperceptible to the general public.

“The short answer is this is not another Big Dig,” said the three-term governor, who said there is a “probability” there would be 50 percent federal funding for the link. Dukakis said the project would “go a long way towards paying for itself” through a combined roughly $180 million in operating expense savings and increased ridership revenues.

The proposed railway linkage – which could include four tracks as an option, according to Businger – would roughly follow the path of the Big Dig underground highway system through Boston.

“Do we have any assurance that that isn’t going to affect that very expensive tunnel we have now?” Straus asked. Straus said the tunnel would require all new locomotives, at about $10 million each.

Straus provided the News Service with what he said was an excerpt from an environmental study circa Jan. 2, 1991, the closing days of the Dukakis administration.

The study found engineering the rail link would be complicated by existing infrastructure, rendered less necessary by planned – and now in place – service improvements and would still require people to switch trains in many cases.

“Given the fact that from an engineering standpoint this connection is at worst impossible and at best impracticable, and given the relatively low demand that would be expected for this service, and given the expense of such a connection, I do not consider this project a mitigation measure necessary,” said the document provided by Straus.

— Written by Andy Metzger

Copyright State House News Service