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Dukakis, Weld Renew Debate Over Boston’s North-South Rail Connector

Although a political odd couple of sorts, former Govs. Michael Dukakis and William Weld have reignited a longstanding debate over Boston’s two major rail hubs.

Tue September 22, 2015 - Northeast Edition

BOSTON (AP) Although a political odd couple of sorts, former Govs. Michael Dukakis and William Weld have reignited a longstanding debate over whether Boston’s two major rail hubs, North Station and South Station, should be connected by an underground tunnel.

Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee and Weld, a Republican, met recently with Gov. Charlie Baker as part of an effort to sell the current administration on the rail link.

Baker and Dukakis later met separately with reporters, with Baker calling the presentation by the ex-governors interesting but making no promises. Dukakis touted the rail link as far preferable to simply expanding the two stations.

Here are some things to know about the proposed North-South rail link:

• What Would It Accomplish?

Dukakis and other supporters contend it would have ramifications for commuters all over the state — and the entire U.S. eastern seaboard for that matter — by plugging a roughly one-mile gap in Boston’s rail network. They say the link would allow commuter trains that now terminate at North or South Stations to continue on, thereby uniting the disparate branches of the commuter rail system — allowing, for example, a Lowell resident to seamlessly commute by train to Plymouth. The same principal, backers say, could apply to Amtrak, facilitating uninterrupted service along the Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C., to northern New England.

• How Much Would It Cost?

No one’s really sure. Baker said there is a lot of debate about projected costs, with current estimates ranging from $2 billion to $4 billion. Dukakis noted that Los Angeles was building a nearly 2-mi. underground rail connection at a projected cost of $1.4 billion. He said the Boston project could be accomplished with cost-effective tunnel boring technology, an older version of which was used in building the Red Line extension to Alewife. Another expense to consider: The MBTA’s diesel-powered locomotives probably can’t be used in the tunnel and would need retrofitting with electric engines.

• What’s the Alternative?

Right now, the alternative appears to be expanding the two stations rather than connecting them. The Legislature has authorized capital funds to expand South Station, in part to provide more track space so trains can turn around to go back in the same direction. Aside from improving transportation options, Dukakis argued the rail link would eliminate the need for an expensive overhaul of the two stations. Baker isn’t so sure. He said it’s not necessarily an either-or situation, and noted the economic development potential tied to a South Station expansion could allow that project to eventually pay for itself.

• Big Dig Redux?

Any plan to build a transportation tunnel under downtown Boston will inevitably invite comparisons to the Big Dig, the massive highway project that was riddled with cost overruns and caused major disruptions during construction. “This is no Big Dig, folks,” declared Dukakis on more than one occasion at his recent news conference. In addition to being far smaller in scope, he said the cost of the rail link could be offset by savings from scrapping the South Station expansion.

• What’s Next?

A lot must happen before a North-South rail link can go forward. The first step could be a $2 million design study that was authorized in a previous transportation bond bill. Dukakis and Weld are also creating a 21-member working group to flesh out details of their proposal. Frank DePaola, the MBTA’s general manager, noted the state recently created a Project Selection Advisory Committee to evaluate the pros and cons of all expansion proposals. Each will be given a score to help prioritize capital investment by the state. Baker described himself as cautious — not skeptical — about the rail link, adding that his immediate focus was on fixing the T after last winter’s disastrous performance.

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