After years of being stuck on the siding, East-West Rail sure seems like it’s on the right track now.
Just look at what’s happened lately. MassDOT is seeking $108 million from the feds for rail improvements between Springfield and Worcester. Governor Maura Healey set aside $8.5 million in her first proposed state budget for track upgrades in Pittsfield and $4 million for a station study and design in Palmer. A new commission reconvenes on Tuesday to hash out the best governing structure for passenger rail operations in Western Massachusetts. Amtrak and CSX are finally all aboard. And Senate President Karen Spilka was just out touring Palmer, where she pledged that it’s a matter of “when, not if” improved train service between Pittsfield and Boston gets done.
But there’s one big obstacle no one seems to be talking about: the US Postal Service’s sprawling mail-sorting complex along the Fort Point Channel. State officials can do all the track and station work they want out west. With the massive USPS facility blocking a South Station expansion in Boston, East-West Rail could be going nowhere.
This isn’t just an issue for adding to Amtrak’s meager one-train-a-day, east-west service. The upcoming commuter rail expansions to Fall River and New Bedford can’t reach their full potential without more South Station capacity. Dreams of running frequent, subway-like service on the Fairmount line through Dorchester can’t really come true, either. South Station is jam-packed, at capacity. That’s why MassDOT has spent years nudging forward a South Station expansion, one with space for up to 10 tracks to augment the 13 there today. However, to pull it off, the USPS needs to move.
Representative Bill Straus, the longtime point person for transportation issues in the House, plans to raise the issue on Tuesday to the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission in Springfield. He wants to draw attention to the logjam while East-West Rail is in the spotlight.
Trying to dislodge the USPS from Fort Point has been a saga that has lasted for years, if not decades. Several previous state transportation secretaries told Straus they were optimistic a deal would get done. But it never has. And while the USPS no longer needs to be near rail lines, Straus notes there’s only one place South Station can expand: the property next door.
About eight years ago, MassDOT seemed to be closing in on a deal that involved a land swap with the Massachusetts Port Authority. The USPS would have moved to Massport land in South Boston, off Pappas Way by the Reserved Channel, while Massport would have received some land that the USPS uses for parking near A Street, closer to downtown. Talks broke down as the value of the Postal Service’s land grew amid a development boom.
MassDOT hasn’t given up. Spokeswoman Jacque Goddard said “high level discussions” were held last fall with the USPS about a relocation, and “the lines of communication remain open.” In other words, the ball is with the people who run the Postal Service. No word yet from them.
Straus said he hopes Healey and her transportation secretary, Gina Fiandaca, will find a receptive audience with rail fans in the Biden administration, including possibly the president himself, and that the USPS can be convinced of the broader public good. (Trump-era appointee Louis DeJoy is still in charge, though.) The focus, Straus said, shouldn’t be on making a killing in the real estate market.
When asked about her East-West Rail efforts, Healey said she wants a fully functioning transportation system for the entire state. Translation: It’s not just about Greater Boston, and the beleaguered MBTA.
To ensure that vision doesn’t get derailed, Healey is going to have to reckon with the South Station dilemma — and that means dealing with the post office.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.