More than 20 years since either served in office, former governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld on Monday urged the state transportation department to link Boston’s northern and southern suburbs with a new rail tunnel under the city.
Dukakis, a Democrat, and Weld, a former Republican, both played critical roles in planning downtown Boston’s last tunnel project, the Big Dig. On Monday, they argued to the transportation department’s governing board, it’s time for the next one.
“If I express a sense of impatience, I am impatient, folks,” Dukakis said. “As you get to be 85, you’ve got to kind of confront your mortality a little bit. And I just think this is a very, very urgent issue. . . . I think it’s time now to get moving.”
This late stage of Dukakis’s career has been consumed by support for the so-called North-South Rail Link, especially since he and Weld sought to stir public debate with a joint op-ed in the Globe in 2015. Last week, Dukakis drove around the region in a 1949 car as a way to demonstrate transportation woes.
Weld, who switched to the Libertarian party and adopted its small-governance philosophy as part of a 2016 vice presidential run, has since been less public in his advocacy. But on Monday, he confirmed he still believes in the idea, especially as a way to link workers on the south side of Boston with companies on the north side and vice versa.
“As I see it, it goes beyond transportation,” said Weld, who is 73. “I think of it as, in large measure, a workforce issue as well.”
Advocates argue that allowing commuter rail trains that today terminate at either North or South stations to instead run through the city would ease regional travel, open capacity on the system for more frequent service, and cut down on the need for train storage space in Boston. It would also allow Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor to continue on to Maine.
But the idea faces a number of hurdles, including a draft study the state issued this year saying the project would cost at least $12 billion, and perhaps as much as $21 billion.
Moreover, Governor Charlie Baker — a Republican who counts Weld as a mentor — said just weeks ago that he’s not convinced the rail link is the best way to solve the state’s transportation problems.
Yet Dukakis was optimistic Monday. He suggested that Democrats regaining the US House of Representatives could make it easier to get federal funding, and suggested Baker may come around to the idea after a resounding reelection win, because of the worsening state of congestion.
Project supporters have cast doubt on the cost estimate for the project. Dukakis, for example, said building the Red Line extension toward Alewife during his administration cost just a fraction of the rail link estimate, even accounting for inflation. Others have criticized the study for basing its estimate on projected costs in 2028.
Dukakis accused the transportation department of having a Big Dig “hangover,” and said officials are still scared by the project that remade Boston but ended massively over budget.
In a memo to the MBTA’s governing board, however, state officials defended the rail link’s cost estimate. Pegging the costs to 2028 is reasonable because the project would need to undergo years of planning and permitting before it could even break ground, wrote state transit planner Scott Hamwey. Hamwey also said the estimate is based on increases in the costs of construction in Boston, and includes possible cost overruns that are more likely with a project so early in planning.
Some advocates have accused the state of trying to stifle support for the project with such a high cost estimate. But Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack stressed Monday that the state is still considering the idea as part of a broader study of how to best operate the commuter rail in the future.
“We’ve put a good process in place” for determining whether to build the link, she said. The state is also still considering a competing multi-billion dollar project to expand South Station to make way for more trains there.
Several other supporters of the north-south link spoke Monday, as did at least one critic: Richard Prone, who represents Duxbury on the MBTA Advisory Board, a group for the communities on the transit system. Prone said building the full rail link could take attention or funding from improving the existing rail system, especially toward the South Shore.
“This would be a massive, complicated undertaking with daunting logistics,” Prone said.