Moulton pitches N-S rail link

Calls project 'transformative' and 'reasonable'

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

CLOSING THE 1.2-MILE VOID between Boston’s North and South stations is the final puzzle piece to a unified northeast rail corridor and would better connect the state’s hot job centers with suburban areas that could accommodate housing development, Congressman Seth Moulton said Wednesday.

The North Shore Democrat pitched business leaders Wednesday morning on the North South Rail Link, a transportation project he said has the potential to transform the greater Boston area.

Congressman Seth Moulton discussed plans for a proposed rail link between North and South stations at a New England Council breakfast forum on Wednesday. [Photo: Antonio Caban/SHNS]

“I believe this is the most significant infrastructure project contemplated for the New England region,” Moulton, a freshman congressman from Salem, told a breakfast hosted by the New England Council. “It would be truly transformative and very reasonable to do.”

The rail link is a long-discussed project that has lacked a champion among elected officials. While many believe in the project’s long-term benefits, few have aggressively pushed for its advancement, perhaps due to concerns over costs and the implications of another underground public works project in Boston.

The tunnel would close the 1.2-mile gap between North and South stations in Boston, linking the region’s bifurcated commuter rail systems and giving Amtrak travelers a straight shot from Virginia through Boston to New Hampshire and Maine, Moulton said. The project would require a 2.8-mile tunnel carrying two tracks under downtown Boston, largely along the same route as the Central Artery.

Moulton said the project would take at least 55,000 cars off the road and would make it easier for people who work in Boston to live outside the city, where there is more room for housing development and where housing prices are less expensive.

If someone from Salem wants to travel to the South Boston seaport, Moulton said, they have to take a commuter rail train to North Station, then transfer to the MBTA subway system to get to the seaport, which is near South Station. And getting from North Station to the seaport, he said, takes longer than getting from Salem to North Station.

With the rail link, people who work in the bustling seaport could take the commuter rail between South Station and more affordable communities like Salem, Moulton said. He used General Electric, which is beginning to move its world headquarters to Boston’s seaport, as an example.

“I can guarantee you, the GE folks in the room, everybody who’s coming into that new GE facility they’re not looking at houses northwest, north of the city. It’s impossible to get there,” the congressman said. “So a lot of the places where there are great opportunities for housing growth, don’t have access to the fastest growing job areas of the state.”

Asked why residents of western Massachusetts should support the project given the lingering sentiment that residents around the state paid the massive costs of the Big Dig highway project, which almost exclusively benefits the greater Boston area, Moulton touted the possibility that the rail link could facilitate high-speed rail access from Springfield to Boston and beyond.

“Right now, today, about half of the commonwealth is served by commuter rail lines, so this is a project that absolutely affects cities and towns well out of the core Boston metropolitan area,” Moulton said. He added, “The Big Dig really didn’t make much of a difference for people who were living in Springfield … this would be very different. This is about dramatically changing travel times throughout the state.”

It was clear Wednesday morning that Moulton and other rail link supporters are well aware of the sour taste the Big Dig left in taxpayers’ mouths and the congressman went out of his way to detail how the rail link “could not be more different” than the expensive 1990s highway tunnel project.

“As far as the surface disruptions … they’re unbelievably minimal because the way you build the tunnel — very different from the Big Dig — is you put these tunnel boring machines … it’s like a big mole and you put it in the ground and it goes through the bedrock under the city,” Moulton said. “So the only places where there are surface disruptions are where the thing gets put in the ground on the north end or the south end.”

Financially, he said, cost estimates for the project hover just above $2 billion. But unlike the Big Dig, the rail link would not be a first-of-its-kind project so designers and engineers can rely on comparable projects elsewhere to guide their work. Citing London’s 118-kilometer Crossrail project, Moulton said the rail link would be “actually quite small potatoes compared to many of these projects around the globe.”

The rail link has lots of supporters but the Baker administration is not among them and state transportation officials are focused on other priorities, primarily improving service within the existing MBTA system.

The link has been a pet cause of former Gov. Michael Dukakis, who has been working with others over the past two years to convince Gov. Charlie Baker of the project’s merits and the importance of releasing funds to update a feasibility study for the link.

“We’re in regular conversation with the administration and it’s significant that an issue they didn’t want to even look at this and now they’ve agreed to do the study,” Moulton said.

The Department of Transportation earlier this year agreed to conduct a “feasibility reassessment” including a study of the project, for which formal planning at MassDOT ceased in 2003.

“Several weeks ago MassDOT provided a draft scope of work to members of the (North South Rail Link) Task Force and once the scope of work is finalized next steps will be taken,” MassDOT communications director Jacquelyn Goddard said in a statement. “While the Baker-Polito Administration is focused on improving service for the one million riders who rely on the MBTA’s core system every day by upgrading existing infrastructure, we appreciate the input of proponents as the Department of Transportation conducts a feasibility reassessment of the North and South Stations rail link.”

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said in June she wanted to put the study out to bid by July, but Goddard said Wednesday the reassessment will not start until the task force provides its input on MassDOT’s draft scope of work and then MassDOT writes a final scope of work document.

Moulton said Wednesday he provided MassDOT with input on the scope of work “months ago” and is under the impression that the rail link study “has not yet started.”

“I will say I’m a little frustrated with the pace of things,” he said.

While Moulton tries to gin up support for the rail link, he is also trying to put the brakes on the expansion of South Station, a project favored by Baker. The expansion, which was included in a bond authorization approved in 2014 by the Legislature, aims to increase capacity at the busy rail terminal.

The Baker administration has not yet green-lighted the South Station project, but the governor has said he thinks the expansion is necessary regardless of whether the North South Rail Link happens.

“I don’t see a scenario where not expanding South Station ultimately makes sense,” Baker said in June. His office did not respond to questions from the News Service about whether the governor still believes the expansion is inevitable.

Moulton, though, said it would be “a real waste of money to do South Station expansion at this point,” and questioned why the state would want to spend money to expand a “nub end” station while the rest of the world is working to connect such terminal stations.

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“I think South Station expansion would be a historic mistake for the state because we really should be using the money set aside for South Station expansion for the North South Rail Link,” he said. “It makes no sense to do both projects because a rail link solves the capacity problem at South Station, it solves 30 other problems as well.”

  • bluishgreen

    While I like most of what Baker has done with righting the ship for the MBTA, I find his lack of understanding of this issue very disappointing, and indicates a lack of “big picture” and long-term vision. I agree with his assertion that we should initially focus on improving existing infrastructure and efficiency rather than initial expansion — but it’s disconcerting that he doesn’t see this as existing infrastructure, and he seems to be getting bad info from his people. The N-S rail link is not expansion — expansion is extending geography. This is a matter of greatly improving the efficiency of the existing infrastructure downtown, which is currently a mess because the subway’s design requires all people to go downtown for any transfers. This N-S rail link would allow the commuter rail to get many more people to their final destination without having to even touch the subway, greatly improving the subway’s efficiency. The Amtrak DC-to-Maine thing is just a fringe benefit — this project is really about commuter rail and subway efficiency improvements.

    Especially considering that Baker already wants to spend big money to expand South Station — so it’s not like the project costs for N-S rail link would go from zero dollars to two billion. The moneys from the (extremely obsolete) South Station expansion project could pay for much of it. South Station expansion will cost more money over the long haul since it doesn’t really solve a problem (it merely kicks one down the road) and more importantly, it won’t improve subway efficiency at all. It also permanently takes-away valuable land downtown that could be used for things like housing or public space, which is another hidden cost of the South Station expansion option. In any case, South Station expansion only helps the commuter rail, while N-S rail link helps the commuter rail and the subway system.

  • bigcityguy

    As long as they build the right project. :) Moulton mentions 2 tracks under the artery – a route that is impractical and more expensive. It would be cheaper to bore a new tunnel under Congress street; and any N-S link has to be 4 tracks in order to be of any use. (2 tracks, 1 each way would be too congested to be useful)