Michael Dukakis, a longtime lover of subways and trains, would go to the ends of the earth to put down one more inch of rail.
Which explains why Dukakis, a Democrat, was sitting in a conference room high above the Seaport District with Republican and longtime nemesis Bill Weld. The two former governors, who are miles apart on many political issues, are discovering common ground — support for an underground rail link beneath downtown Boston.
“We are both passionate about connecting North and South Station,” said Dukakis. “We both think it’s a no-brainer.”
As they try to accomplish now what they couldn’t as governors, their efforts could relaunch a worthy transportation policy debate. But somewhere, Big Dig contractors are smiling.
Planning for that project began in the 1970s, but construction was not completed until 2007. An initial $2.8 billion cost estimate ballooned up to $22 billion including interest. Cost overruns calculated during the administrations of Weld and his successor, Paul Cellucci, triggered massive borrowing. The financing plan was put together by then Administration and Finance secretary Charlie Baker, who is now the Republican gubernatorial nominee. Debt from that era will not be paid off until 2038.
Original Big Dig plans included rail down the middle of it and physically, room was left for it. But money and politics derailed construction and subsequent efforts to revive the North-South Rail Link were met with resistance. Under Governor Mitt Romney, the state did a study that estimated the cost at $8 billion. After first expressing support for the rail link, Governor Deval Patrick backed away from it.
But Dukakis and Weld say post-Big Dig price trauma is no reason to abandon the rail plan. Both dispute the $8 billion cost estimate. The average cost of urban tunnel construction is only “$900 million a mile,” according to Dukakis, and this stretch is “less than a mile.”
“To say this is not physically feasible is not a winner anymore,” said Weld. The project, he added, should be analyzed “not only according to the cost of doing it but to the cost of not doing it.” Both ex-governors support a Boston Olympics bid and say this project is essential for it.
Watching them jointly press this case is a little like watching pigs fly. Weld tries to take the conversation “up to 38,000 feet,” as he puts it. Dukakis talks about “tunneling machines.”
Turning over the governor’s office to Weld in 1991 was not a happy transition for Dukakis. After losing a 1988 presidential bid, he returned home to face bitter critiques of his policies amidst falling state revenues. Weld’s victory was essentially a referendum on the end of the Dukakis era. It triggered a 16-year run of Republican governors in Massachusetts.
Weld resigned as governor in 1997 and relocated to New York. He returned to Boston in 2012, and now works for ML Strategies, which specializes in government relations and consulting. In that role, Weld sat before the state gaming commission, with a napping Steve Wynn beside him, in a successful bid to win a license for an Everett casino. He said he has no client associated with the rail link plan.
Today, Baker, a Weld protege, is running on a platform similar to Weld’s — no new taxes and better management of state government. Weld said he has not discussed the rail link plan with the GOP’s current gubernatorial hopeful. But he adds, “If you said to me, who is the financial genius who could figure out how to finance this, the first guy I’d go to is Charlie Baker.”
“No matter who the governor is,” added Dukakis, a Martha Coakley backer.
Even in Massachusetts, political hatchets can be buried. It just takes shared passion and time — only about a quarter of a century.