Moulton pushes North-South Rail Link

Congressman calls it a ‘transformative’ project for 21st century

IT’S BEEN CALLED pie-in-the-sky by some. Others have visions – more accurately, nightmares – of another Big Dig that turns downtown Boston upside down for years and soaks public coffers with wild cost overruns.

US Rep. Seth Moulton has a very different way of describing the North-South Rail Link, which would connect Boston’s two commuter rail stations by underground tunnel: He calls it the one truly “transformative project on the table today.”

Moulton, Seth

Moulton: “Good ideas don’t succeed on their own.”

Moulton made his case on Thursday to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, calling the rail link a “visionary” endeavor that would inject vitality into the regional economy, prevent gridlock on area roads, and help address economic inequality by putting better jobs in reach of more people.

The project, which was touted as a possible component of the Big Dig but not included in the massive project, would involve a 2.8-mile tunnel joining North Station and South Station. It would allow commuter rail trains to pass through the two stations and would allow continuous Amtrak service from Washington, DC, to Maine.

Moulton acknowledged the specter of the Big Dig hanging over the project, but said many of the fears are unfounded. “I’ve learned this is a lot easier than those of us still suffering from a Big Dig hangover would like to believe,” he said.

The second-term Salem Democrat said newer tunnel-boring technology, which did not yet have federal highway department approval during the Big Dig, would allow the project to be carried out underground without the “cut and cover” approach that requires opening up streets above the tunnel construction. Moulton said he has visited a project using the technology in London that is getting it done on time and on budget.

While earlier estimates pegged the cost of the North-South rail link as high as $8 billion, Moulton said a figure of about $2 billion is now feasible based on the London experience.

He said the commuting time from North Station to South Station would be cut from about 30 minutes to two minutes. “It takes longer to get from North Station to the South Boston Seaport at rush hour than it does to get all the way from Salem to North Station on the commuter rail,” Moulton said.

Moulton said employers today lose out on potential employees living in huge swaths of the Greater Boston area, while workers are cut off in their job search by geography. He said it is unlikely, for example, that any of the 800 new employees at General Electric’s new headquarters in the Seaport district are looking for homes in his North Shore district.

“North-South Rail Link would literally unlock the other half of the state to companies on one side of the commuter rail system or another,” Moulton told the business group.

Moulton acknowledged that a long tunnel at the center of regional rail system would require electrifying a system that now relies on diesel locomotives. He said the environmental case for a switchover is undeniable, but conceded that cost issues mean it would make sense to phase in over time the number of north-south lines using a new tunnel.

The proposal is butting heads with plans to expand South Station by adding seven more tracks to address a capacity shortage there. The $1.6 billion South Station plan has the backing of Gov. Charlie Baker and many business leaders, but Moulton says it makes no sense to expand a centrally located “stub end” terminal like South Station, where trains must reverse direction and back out after completing a run.

He said his office has found roughly 35 cities around the world that have completed or are in the process of completing cross-city rail links that join train stations so that trains don’t have turn around or be stored in valuable central locations.

“We have not found a single city anywhere on the globe that is expanding a stub end terminal like South Station,” he told the business leaders. “That’s a very 19th century solution to a 21st century transportation problem.”

He said federal support for the project is possible, but “the trigger for federal funding is state buy-in.” Moulton acknowledged the project does not have support from Baker, “who has still put his money on South Station expansion, quite literally.”

He said Baker listens to the business community, and so he and other advocates need to make their case to those leaders.

Moulton said the South Station project not only doesn’t make sense as a modern transportation plan, it could also run into regulatory roadblocks. He said Environmental Protection Agency approval requires that the project consider “viable alternatives.” Moulton said the environmental impact report for South Station expansion has not examined the rail link as an alternative to meet rider needs.

“That’s just a mistake, it’s wrong – and it’s ripe for lawsuits,” he said.

Asked after his speech, Moulton said he has no idea if any groups are considering suing over the South Station project, but said has heard it raised as a possible issue.

Though the Baker administration has been cool to the rail link idea, the state is commissioning a study to examine the feasibility of the project.

In early March, the state started soliciting bids for a study, which is estimated to cost $1.5 million. Four proposals were received by last week’s deadline, and state transportation officials say a contractor should be selected by mid-May, with their report due 12 months later.

Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, said following Moulton’s speech that there a lot of potential benefits to the rail link. But there is “more work to be done on the cost side,” Dempsey said, including considering the trade-offs in “a world of limited resources.”

He said it was too soon for his group to weigh in on the project, but said the state-funded study should “help us wrap our arms around this a little better.”

Jim Rooney, president of the chamber of commerce, said the new tunnel-boring technology “changes the game, both in terms of disruption and cost” of the rail link. “But it still comes with a high price tag,” said Rooney, who previously held top with the MBTA and the Big Dig project.

Rooney and the chamber of commerce are supporting the South Station expansion. Like Dempsey, Rooney said the state study should help sort out the competing arguments for the two projects.

 Former governor Michael Dukakis has been the most fervent backer of the rail link. He has been joined in recent years by Bill Weld, his successor in the corner office, who says he’s now convinced the project makes sense.

Moulton has emerged as the highest profile current elected official pushing the idea.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“One of the things that I’ve learned in this job is that good ideas need champions,” Moulton said following his speech. “Good ideas don’t succeed on their own, and I think this is such a transformative project for the Commonwealth and for my district that it deserves my time and effort.”