Supporters of a North-South Rail Link project that’s been batted around for a century are dusting off the proposal and making another push, in hopes the incoming administration will show more interest in the pricey connection than the prior one.
The project, which was last discussed by transit officials in 2018-19 when a MassDOT feasibility study estimated a hefty cost of $8.6-$17.7 billion, would connect the Amtrak and Commuter Rail lines that currently end at North and South station, via a tunnel under downtown Boston.
“We got no movement from the Baker administration on this,” said former Gov. Michael Dukakis, a longtime advocate for the project. “It’s absolutely critical to the future of the city.”
At the time of the study, Gov. Charlie Baker said the project was too expensive. MassDOT had recommended a $9.5 billion build option for a two-track tunnel that would run under Congress Street and include connections to State and Haymarket stations.
But now proponents of North-South Rail Link, which was also the subject of prior studies in 1993 and 2003, see a renewed opportunity, Dukakis said, and “have been pushing it hard with the new administration.” He described it as a “no brainer” that would take 60,000 cars off the road each day.
“Nothing really works unless you eliminate this ridiculous hole in the middle of Boston,” Dukakis said. “This is the remaining key piece of the transportation system in and around Boston and this is a great time to get going on it.”
The group has detected interest from Gov.-elect Maura Healey, he said, but it’s been higher from Lt. Gov.-elect Kim Driscoll, a past supporter of the project in her capacity as mayor of Salem, a north-of-Boston city that would benefit from the connection.
Neither Healey nor Driscoll would comment directly on where they stood on the rail connection, but did indicate this week that they were open to looking into it.
“Maura and Kim are learning more about North-South Rail and always welcome discussion about how we can make our public transportation system more interconnected so that it works better for everyone,” said Karissa Hand, spokesperson for the Healey-Driscoll transition.
Advocates, who maintain that MassDOT’s 2019 cost estimates for the project were much higher than they think it will be, are seeking roughly $60 million in federal funding to kickstart the effort, said former state representative John Businger.
That funding would allow for the completion of two documents looking into the environmental impacts of the North-South Rail Link, reports that Businger said will also include an updated cost estimate for the project.
“That’s a drop in the bucket,” Businger said, comparing that $60 million figure to the $108 million in federal funding MassDOT, in partnership with Amtrak, is seeking for the beginning of an East-West Rail connection.
TransitMatters Executive Director Jarred Johnson said several steps have to be taken prior to completion of a North-South Rail Link, which he described as the ultimate goal for transitioning to a regional rail network, such as more reliable electric trains, the elimination of bottlenecks, and accessible stations.
In late 2019, the MBTA’s-then Fiscal and Management Control Board discussed options to overhaul the Commuter Rail, which included electrification of main lines and more frequent service, one of which included a North-South Rail Link at a whopping $29 billion.
Critics at the time likened it to another “Big Dig,” an unflattering reference to a highway megaproject in Boston that exceeded its budget by roughly $12 billion.
Charlie Chieppo, senior fellow at the Pioneer Institute, said taking another look at connecting North and South stations is a “legitimate debate,” given the shift toward a world that relies less on cars and more on public transportation, but is not entirely on board with how much it would cost.
“Despite what Gov. Dukakis has said in the past, I think it’s going to be unbelievably expensive,” Chieppo said. “To be perfectly frank, my fear is I don’t want to spend a lot of state money for something that is going to partly help Amtrak.”
An MBTA spokesperson deferred comment on whether there have been any new discussions about North-South Rail to MassDOT, which referred the Herald to its 2019 feasibility study.