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Shirley Leung

Dukakis, Weld agree on need for rail link

Former Governor Michael Dukakis
Former Governor Michael DukakisStephan Savoia/Associated Press

They’re the ultimate political odd couple. One is a Democrat, the other a Republican, and while they fought bitterly back in their day, these former governors have set aside their differences to go on a quixotic quest.

Neither Michael Dukakis nor Bill Weld could get a rail link between North Station and South Station built during his administration, and now they want Charlie Baker to pick up where they left off and back another multibillion-dollar tunnel under Boston.

It is, literally, the Big Dig II. And that just might take all the political capital these ex-governors have left because the Baker administration instead favors a project that would only expand South Station to improve the transit system.

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“When you have Weld and Dukakis pushing something together, at least you want to pause and think about it,” Dukakis said.

Especially after what they did to each other a quarter-century earlier. Weld beat up Dukakis like a pinata during the Republican’s 1990 successful run for governor, painting him as a classic tax-and-spend liberal and blaming him for the state’s economic crisis.

Dukakis, who did not seek a fourth term, refused to go quietly, and during the transition kept telling the governor-elect what he should and shouldn’t do.

If there are any hard feelings left, they don’t show them today.

“I am very fond of Michael,” said Weld, 70, who thinks the two have more in common than most people think.

“Every time I tacked left when I was governor on some issue, Governor Dukakis would say, ‘Bill Weld and I don’t agree on much but . . . ’ he would go along with whatever it was,” recalled Weld.

Well, Dukakis, now 81, doesn’t remember it quite like that. He thinks the two still don’t agree on much, except for their passion for the Harbor Islands and the project to connect Boston’s two main train terminals, known as the North-South Rail Link.

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“The thing makes a certain amount of sense,” Weld said. “Why would a train go from Washington, D.C., to South Station and then not be able to get to North Station?”

But then he catches himself, chuckling: “I hate to sound so much like Governor Dukakis. I can just hear him saying that.”

Their politics aside, it’s a Massachusetts miracle these two can find anything to bond over. Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, is serious and prone to lectures. It’s a good thing he has been teaching at Northeastern University and the University of California, Los Angeles, all these years.

Weld, the patrician Yankee, is laid back and irreverent. He returned to the private sector after politics and has been a high-priced lobbyist at ML Strategies, the consulting and lobbying arm of the Boston law firm Mintz Levin. (Weld isn’t representing anyone on the North-South Rail Link.)

But these bedfellows are hardly strangers. Long before the lawyers crested Beacon Hill, they worked together at the Boston firm Hill and Barlow. Actually, Dukakis was Weld’s boss.

“I can still hear his supervisory voice when he addresses me,” Weld said.

Dukakis doesn’t forget those days either. “I used to say to him when he became governor, ‘Where did I go wrong? What happened to you?’ ”

Weld professes that he has wanted to connect the city’s two main terminals since he was an 11-year-old boarder at the Middlesex School in Concord. He still remembers riding the train up from New York and having to get off at South Station and lug his trunk to catch a train at North Station.

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As governor, Weld made sure during the construction of the Big Dig that crews carved out enough space to preserve the option of another tunnel for trains. The time to do the rail link was when the city was already torn up for the Central Artery. Dukakis, who was planning the project when he was in office, couldn’t get federal funding for the link.

“I’m still convinced it’s a good idea,” said Weld. “The question is the price tag.”

Former Governor William F. Weld in 2012.
Former Governor William F. Weld in 2012.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/file

Weld leaves the number-crunching up to Dukakis, who loves being in the weeds, especially on transportation issues. He regularly rode the Green Line while in office and later served on the board of Amtrak.

Dukakis argues that tunnel technology has vastly improved since the Big Dig, potentially driving down the cost for the link to about $2.7 billion. A study under Governor Mitt Romney pegged the project’s price at $8 billion, which is why that governor killed it in 2003.

The rail link isn’t on the new administration’s agenda, but that hasn’t stopped Dukakis from making the rounds — including a recent call to Baker’s chief of staff, Steve Kadish.

“The critical issue here — which I don’t think Charlie understands at this point and it’s one of things Weld and I want to talk to him about — is if you do the link, there is absolutely no reason at all to expand South Station,” Dukakis said.

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Baker, a Weld protégé who served in his administration, is evaluating how the state can move forward on a $1.6 billion expansion of that MBTA-Amtrak terminal. The proposal to add seven tracks could reduce train delays and expand commuter rail service, as well as ease traffic congestion in the Seaport District and create real estate development opportunities.

Dukakis contends the North-South Rail Link can also curb congestion because fewer trains will have to stop at South Station and can instead pass through.

“In my opinion, it is the single most important transportation project we can do,” said Dukakis.

While Dukakis and Weld work over Baker, they also have to win over his transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack. She used to work down the hall from Dukakis at Northeastern, where she oversaw transportation research at the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

Over the years, Pollack has gotten an earful from her former colleague about the need for a new train tunnel. So far, she is not swayed.

“While we are happy to talk to people about reopening the question of the North-South Rail Link, it is not instead of the South Station expansion project,” Pollack told me. “We need to expand South Station.”

Talk to transit advocates, such as Rafael Mares of the Conservation Law Foundation, and they’ll tell you we need to do both projects to create a world-class transit network.

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The reality is that we can’t afford to do both now, and Baker will need to pick one.

If a deal can be struck to relocate the big Postal Service facility next door, the South Station expansion will be cheaper and easier to get in the ground.

That’s probably something only a sitting governor can explain to his predecessors.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.