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Should the state build the North South Rail Link?


Michael S. Dukakis

Michael DukakisJessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Former governor of Massachusetts, Brookline resident

In 1914 a special state commission strongly recommended that the Commonwealth unify its regional rail system by connecting North and South Stations by rail.

We are still waiting. And it’s not for lack of trying. Our original plan for the Big Dig included a double rail line down the middle of the tunnel that would have finally connected the two stations. Unfortunately, it was rejected by the Reagan administration, which was no fan of rail and transit.

Bill Weld, who succeeded me as governor, picked up the ball and with the help of Ted Kennedy and Senator George Mitchell of Maine did extensive planning and engineering work on the project. In fact, the T had already built a similar project in extending the Red Line from Harvard to Alewife when I was governor. Total cost in current dollars was $1.6 billion.

In the meantime, as any local motorist can tell you, Boston and eastern Massachusetts are choking on their own traffic, and the situation is only going to worsen. Traffic on the Southeast Expressway at 5 p.m. is now averaging 10.6 miles an hour. In three years it will be six miles an hour, and in three more years it will be three miles an hour — unless we do something, and fast.


That something is the North South Rail Link, which would finally do what that special commission in 1914 urged — connect Boston’s two railroad stations; unify the state’s regional rail system; take thousands of cars off the road; and eliminate the one gap in the Northeast Corridor between Portland and Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, we have just been presented by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation with a consultant’s report that tells us the link will cost between $12 billion and $20 billion. MassDOT ought to toss the report in the wastebasket and start again. The cost numbers are obviously absurd. Projects like the rail link are being built all over the world at a cost of between $1 billion and $3 billion.


Fortunately, the legislature has already voted the funds to resume serious environmental impact and engineering studies for the North-South Rail Link.

The governor should order those studies to begin immediately.


William Straushandout

William Straus

State representative, Mattapoisett Democrat, House Chair, Joint Committee on Transportation

Every transportation mega-project comes down to two questions: Is the project useful for transportation AND can we afford it? The North South Rail Link, a tunnel up to 195 feet under Boston, fails on both counts. The rail link is something that neither improves our transportation system, nor comes at a price we can afford.

The rail link has never looked like a good transportation fix; it requires the construction of a three-mile tunnel starting north of the Charles then proceeding under the downtown below other train lines and the Big Dig, eventually resurfacing about a mile south of South Station. I believe there is zero prospect of money from Washington for this tunnel. With the rail link, most riders would have to change trains anyway, but now would have to encounter banks of escalators to return to the surface. Also, the required track alignment for the rail link needs a new underground North Station to be built away from the Garden and south of Causeway Street — Celtics and Bruins fans please take note. In 1991, the state Environmental Secretary found: “The rail link would not provide any real service improvement or ease of travel for the vast majority of rail commuters.”


This project has not improved with age. Last winter proved that new levels of flooding are a fact of life for Boston. It makes no sense to add a new flood hazard in the middle of what would become the central rail connection for all trains entering Boston.

In May Harvard University released an analysis by 45 engineering students evaluating the rail link in terms of improving ridership, operational efficiency, capacity, air quality, and redevelopment. In every category they concluded transportation alternatives to the project worked better.

On cost, the latest state evaluation confirms that this is a multi-billion dollar project. Rail link supporters want a four-track tunnel, which means a cost of over $20 billion. That is simply unaffordable if we are going to undertake any other projects to improve our state’s transportation system. Studies with a lower number of billions for the rail link still signal a project just as unaffordable. It’s time to move on.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.