We hear a lot about what Charlie Baker is loath to spend money on, from a bigger convention center to an Olympic velodrome, but here’s what he might loosen the purse strings for: a $1.6 billion expansion of South Station.
The governor flew down to Washington last week to meet with US Representative Stephen Lynch, whose district includes South Station, and next month Baker plans to go back, bringing along Mayor Marty Walsh, who supports the expansion.
Over the past couple of months, Baker has been exploring the feasibility of a bigger South Station, a project that has stalled because the state and the Postal Service have yet to reach an agreement on where to move a mail-sorting facility that stands in the way of development of the area.
The Patrick administration, with then transportation secretary Rich Davey, tried to broker a three-way land swap that would have had the post office move to another site in South Boston owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority. Talks broke off last fall.
With the budget deficit under control and his focus on finally fixing the MBTA, the governor is drilling into the details of how the state could add tracks and create real estate development opportunities around the station, a major hub for subway, commuter, and Amtrak trains.
“South Station is a lot of things,” Baker said. “It’s a transportation issue. It’s an economic development issue. It’s an access issue to the Seaport District.”
Still, Baker doesn’t pretend to know what’s the best thing to do here.
“It’s a big, complicated project,” he said. “It deserves a big and significant appropriate review, and it will get that before we make any decisions.”
South Station is currently at capacity with 13 tracks, and state transportation officials have long wanted to build seven more to relieve delays and pave the way for more commuter trains and high-speed rail. The expensive project could be funded, in part, by selling multiple sets of air rights to allow developers to build over the station.
Another benefit: The city could reclaim a section of Dorchester Avenue that the Postal Service has sealed off from civilian drivers for security reasons. Reopening that part of the street not only could help ease some of the traffic jams in the Seaport District, but also allow the city to revisit some of its 2024 Summer Games development plans. Dorchester Avenue was to be transformed into a television-ready “Olympic Boulevard” lined with parks, housing, and shops.
“We would love to open that [part of] Dorchester Avenue back up to the city,” Walsh said.
Both politicians are meeting with Lynch in Washington because he has been key to negotiations between local and federal officials. Lynch, a Democrat, is not only representing South Boston; he is also a member of the congressional subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service. Last year, he arranged for meetings involving Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, Davey, and Massachusetts Port Authority chief Tom Glynn.
After staying neutral on Boston’s hosting the Olympics, Baker seems to be itching for an ambitious project he can call his own.
“He’s looking at creating jobs, and he’s looking at a couple of big projects where he thinks that he may establish a legacy,” Lynch said of Baker’s interest in South Station.
Candidate Baker didn’t put a priority on transportation, but after the MBTA’s disastrous performance this past winter, Governor Baker has set out to fix our subways and commuter trains. He put together a commission on the MBTA, appointed a new transportation board, and introduced legislation to overhaul the T. Baker, a Republican, got a lot of what he wanted: a fiscal control board and a three-year suspension of an antiprivatization law.
While Baker is getting up to speed on issues with South Station, there have been no new talks between the state and federal officials in recent months. The Postal Service, in a statement, said it wants to “move forward rapidly” on a transaction, but no agreement has been reached.
So what happened last time? It was a proposal only a bureaucrat could appreciate. If the Postal Service moved, the state would build the federal government a new mail facility and a 1,000-car garage on a chunk of land off E Street in South Boston owned by Massport. In exchange, Massport would get a parking lot off A Street owned by the Postal Service.
The post office said no, saying the state’s deal wasn’t lucrative enough — about $100 million short. Yes, this is the same agency that is hemorrhaging money.
Lynch is hoping for a fresh start, now that there are two new players — Baker and a new postmaster general, Megan Brennan. Still, even the congressman realizes just how difficult the process has been. Last fall he described both sides as being close in what he called at the “five-yard line.”
Ask him now, and Lynch has a different take.
“Depending on who you talk to, we were on the five-yard line or the two-yard line, but we all know what happened to Seattle on the two-yard line,” Lynch said, referring to the Patriots’ surprise goal-line interception that cost the Seahawks the Super Bowl.
Lynch put the odds of a deal between the state and federal governments at “51 percent.”
Which may explain why Baker wants to do a deep dive on various options for South Station, including one that does not involve moving the Postal Service.
“That’s one of the questions that has to be part of the dialogue,” Baker said.
The state may be playing hardball, but there’s no harm in sending a signal to the Postal Service that it can’t hold the futures of South Station and South Boston hostage. In fact, it might be the tactic that delivers a deal.