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Opinion | Rachelle G. Cohen

Why the North South Rail Link deserves to die

Won’t someone please just put a stake in the heart of the state’s oldest and most preposterous transit idea ever — the North South Rail Link?

Yet another draft “feasibility reassessment” was released last month — this one putting its price tag between $12 billion and $21.5 billion — which launches yet another public comment period for the 1.5 mile connection between North and South Stations.

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When a much younger colleague commented, “Haven’t they been discussing this since I was in middle school?” she was pretty spot on. That might also explain why most of its boosters are septuagenarians and up. And, yes, that includes 84-year-old former Governor Mike Dukakis, for whom this remains a life’s dream; it’s apparently not enough that we’re still paying the debt on his last big dream — the Big Dig.

The one younger exception to the septuagenarian rule is US Representative Seth Moulton. Memo to Moulton: When you’re House speaker and can promise to keep a flood of federal transportation funds flowing to Massachusetts like Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy did for the Big Dig, please feel free to get back to us on this.


The latest draft study, commissioned by the state Transportation Department and conducted by the global engineering firm Arup, makes no effort to deal with the issue of where those billions of dollars would come from. That’s a study for another day.

The report, of course, presents options — two tracks vs. four tracks, several different routes, all of which would involve boring tunnels under downtown Boston. And this is where it really gets to be fun. But let’s go right to the study:

“Given the complexities of tunneling through downtown Boston (underground utilities, existing rail and highway tunnels) the NSRL would be built by a tunnel boring machine (TBM) at a depth below these obstructions.”


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One tunnel option would be a mere 115 feet deep. Been to Porter Square Station lately? That’s 105 feet deep. Another option would have to go 195 feet underground. And as the section on “Risks” so delicately puts it:

“Depth of stations is a concern during evacuation (and possible negative impact on customers experience due to long time to exit stations).” Gosh, you think?

And here are a few more of those little talked about risks:

No system has ever operated the “aspirational level of frequency with Positive Train Control” (needed for safety); “Service disruptions on one or two tracks in the tunnel will cause ripple effects throughout the entire commuter rail system”; and “Rapid transit stations were not designed to accommodate transfers from commuter rail in the way they would happen now and may lack platform capacity to adequately do so.”

There are also, of course, the equally horrifying service disruptions during construction, including “temporary rerouting of some of all Amtrak, Providence, Stoughton, and Franklin Line service” into South Station and “service delays and interruptions” into and out of North Station.

The link would also be the gift that keeps on giving in terms of increased operating costs for a transit system perpetually in deficit already. The study estimates annual operating costs of $929 million, compared to the alternative of expanding South Station (estimated construction cost of $4.7 billion) at $775 million a year.


The Big Dig for all its blown cost estimates (1987 estimate, $2.6 billion; 2012 cost, $24.3 billion) at least gave us a stunning park where once a crumbling highway bifurcated the city, and an iconic bridge. What the North South Rail Link — an idea that is decades old — lacks is anything approaching imagination. It is a yesterday solution for a region with far more pressing transit needs. (Hey how about a way to get people in and out of the Seaport District?)

Please, just make it go away!

Rachelle G. Cohen is a contributing columnist and a member of the Globe’s editorial board.