Study: N-S Rail Link cost at least $12.3b
Dukakis says numbers have 'no relation to reality'
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The rail link has been championed by transit advocates and politicians such as US Rep. Seth Moulton and former governor Michael Dukakis as a way to link the north and south sides of the commuter rail system and allow someone from the north to travel on one train to the south and visa versa. It would also allow an Amtrak passenger to go from Providence to Portland without stopping. The idea makes a lot of sense conceptually, but the big concern has been that it would cost an enormous amount of money and become the second Big Dig.
The $2 million study, conducted by the engineering firm Arup, did little to alleviate those concerns. It said the cost of building the rail link would range between $12.3 billion for a two-track option and $21.5 billion for a four-track option. The study assumed construction would begin in 2024 and conclude in 2032. By contrast, a proposal to expand track capacity at South Station to allow more trains to use the facility was estimated to cost nearly $4.7 billion.
The study estimated ridership on the commuter rail system would grow by 150,000 by 2040 if neither South Station expansion or the North-South Rail Link was done. It said ridership would grow by 195,000 if either South Station is expanded or the two-track, rail-link option is pursued. The study said ridership could increase by 225,000 if the rail link is built and service is expanded. The estimate rose to 250,000 additional passengers with a four-track system and expanded service. For expanded service, the study assumed at least 17 trains per hour, or one every 3 1/2 minutes, which is much faster than existing commuter rail service and would require major modifications to the way trains are operated and staffed.
Dukakis was also dismissive of the plan to expand South Station. “It’s a waste of time and a waste of money,” he said.
In a statement, Moulton sounded as if the study did little to change his view that the rail link is needed. “This study analyzed the rail link in the context of the commuter rail network of today–an exercise akin to examining the costs of an interstate highway system while assuming that people will continue to travel by horse and buggy,” Moulton said. “It does not account for the drastically expanded access to jobs and affordable housing that the rail link will bring, nor does it assess the value the NSRL would bring as the heart of the regional rail network our state so desperately needs. If we are content to allow grinding traffic, sky-high housing prices, and record income inequality to diminish the future of our cities and state, then this study represents an ending. If instead we aspire to build the 21st century transportation system our citizens need and deserve, then it is only one of the Commonwealth’s first steps towards regional rail.”
Ed Mueller, who served on a North-South Rail Link working group, questioned the accuracy of the ridership numbers because he said they are based on data from 12 years ago.
Joseph Aiello, chairman of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, was also skeptical of the ridership numbers. At one point during the a presentation on ridership forecasts, he interrupted a presenter who was explaining the numbers, and said: “It’s easier to say no one has confidence in the results.”
Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said the study “should finally end any lingering questions about how expensive and unnecessary the project really is.” He said the project “is not only beyond the reach of any conceivable financing plan but, according to the report, adds little if any to the transportation needs of the region or the state.”
Despite the high cost numbers, state transportation officials didn’t dismiss building a North-South Rail Link out of hand. They said they would seek public input on the study’s conclusions and revise it as necessary. They also said a rail link would be included in a number of options being reviewed as part of a larger study on the future of the commuter rail system.
“There is no recommendation yet for either of these projects,” said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.
The exact location of the underground stations wasn’t specified, but Hamwey said they wouldn’t be located directly underneath either South or North Station. He said connections would be provided to subway and bus service at the stations, however. Hamwey said North Station commuter rail tracks could possibly be eliminated sometime in the future, but no tracks would be removed at South Station.
Hamwey said building a four-track tunnel would allow all of the existing commuter rail lines to connect between South and North Station, while the two-track option would allow only certain lines to connect.
Hamwey said the construction of the tunnel would also interrupt existing service for several years as only one track would run between Back Bay Station and South Station. The study said some or all Amtrak service as well as service on the Providence, Stoughton, and Franklin Lines would have to be rerouted to the Fairmount Line, which would have to be electrified.
The study also concluded service on the Worcester Line and the Amtrak Lakeshore Limited would have to stop west of Back Bay Station unless an alternative route to downtown could be developed. One option would be the Grand Junction Line, which currently runs without passengers between the Worcester Line in Brighton and Kendall Square and North Station.
Hamwey said the study indicated electrification of the commuter rail system would be very expensive. As a result, he said, the study assumed the commuter rail system would only be electrified underground and one station above ground on each end of the tunnel. He said the commuter rail system would need to purchase locomotives capable of running on diesel or electricity, but the exact number was unclear.According to the study, the tunnel construction would cost $8.6 billion with a two-track approach and $17.7 billion with a four-track approach. New vehicles needed to provide service would cost about $2.4 billion, while investments needed to support increased service on the commuter rail system were forecast to total about $1.3 billion.
A study done by a professor and students at the Harvard Kennedy School last year indicated the cost of building a North-South Rail Link would cost between $3.8 billion and $5.9 billion. That cost estimate, which was stated in 2025 dollars, was significantly below the roughly $8 billion figure floated in a 2003 MBTA study of the North-South Rail Link and gave hope to advocates for the rail link. But Hamwey said the Harvard study did not include the cost of a tunnel boring machine launch pit and assumed only 2.7 miles of tunneling, compared to five miles with the Department of Transportation study.