Governor Charlie Baker made clear Thursday that he isn’t a big fan of a proposed rail tunnel to connect North and South stations, saying he is focused on making existing MBTA lines more reliable.
Baker told business leaders he would move ahead with a feasibility study for the North-South Rail Link. But he indicated he would prioritize state funds for fixing the subway and commuter train lines that are running today.
“We’ll do the study,” Baker said at a morning meeting of the New England Council, a business advocacy group. “We’ll see what it says. But I really want the investment to be in the core system.”
A spokesman later emphasized that Baker is keeping an open mind.
But his comments about the rail link followed more general comments about why riders need to see a properly functioning transit service first, before expansions. He criticized previous leaders’ “fascination with growth and expansion . . . to add a few thousand riders” while not updating basic signals and switches for decades.
Baker said three-fourths of his administration’s five-year capital plan for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority — about $4.9 billion — is focused on modernizing existing infrastructure and improving reliability. Only about one-fourth of the plan is devoted to expansion, and much of that money would be swallowed up by the Green Line extension already underway from Cambridge to Medford.
“I will be called a nonvisionary on transportation a lot over the next few years [but] there’s nothing visionary about not investing in the core system,” Baker said. “If you want people to get on the thing and ride, you have to give them a better product, one that will get them where they need to go, when they need to get there. It means you have to invest in the core system, period.”
One main reason the Baker administration is moving ahead with the rail link study: the tag team of former governors Michael Dukakis and Bill Weld. They have been pushing the Baker administration to champion the once-discarded project. State lawmakers have authorized $2 million for a study, but it’s up to the administration to decide how much to spend, up to that cap.
Baker’s comments also underscored his rift with Dukakis over the need to expand already-congested South Station.
The Baker administration is moving ahead with a $1.6 billion plan, one that would add seven tracks at the station. Baker said the project, coupled with a move of the Postal Service facility next door, would unlock the development potential along the downtown side of Fort Point Channel while accommodating more frequent trains.
Dukakis argues that a North-South Rail Link would make a South Station expansion unnecessary, because trains could just continue through to routes north of Boston rather than stop in the city.
Baker is not convinced.
“I don’t see a scenario where not expanding South Station ultimately makes sense,” Baker said. “Governor Dukakis says we don’t need to expand South Station. I kind of think we do.”
Dukakis remains undeterred. He said the rail link could eventually pay for itself, because of increased ridership and operating efficiencies that would come from connecting the northern and southern halves of the MBTA’s commuter rail system.
The tunnel also has the support of a number of prominent politicians north of Boston who want their constituents to have the option of taking commuter rail all the way to South Station.
“The problem here is we essentially have two commuter rail systems that are operating independently of each other,” Dukakis said.
There’s another potential benefit that Dukakis cites. A South Station expansion would necessitate more layover space in Boston for trains, particularly for the middle of the day when they don’t run as frequently.
Dukakis said two locations under consideration — Widett Circle near South Boston, and Beacon Park Yard in Allston — would be better suited for development instead of more rail yards.
Dukakis said he doesn’t have a good estimate of how much the rail link would cost. But he said advances in construction technology should make it much less expensive than the estimated $8 billion-plus floated when then-governor Mitt Romney shelved the project more than a decade ago.
To many, the rail link was something that should have been done when Interstate 93 was buried under downtown Boston as part of the Big Dig.
“To do it now, to have to navigate what they’re going to navigate, I can’t imagine it being anything other than outrageously expensive,” said Michael Rubin, a real estate lawyer at Posternak Blankstein & Lund’s Boston office.
Rubin said the existing lines needs to be prioritized. He mentioned a colleague from Haverhill who has had commuter trains canceled on her within the past month, as well as two times when she needed to walk through a tunnel to escape a broken-down Green Line car.
Rafael Mares, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation who specializes in transit issues, said he recognizes that completing a north-south link would be much tougher now than it would have been during the Big Dig.
But that doesn’t mean it should be ruled out, he said.
“If we have a bigger vision for our transportation system, there are number of projects that should be on the list, and this is one of them,” Mares said.
“It’s really important to look at costs. But what we’re missing frequently is what the benefits are. And only if you look at both can you see if you’re getting a good deal or not.”