THE US POSTAL Service seems to hold all the cards in the Fort Point Channel area, where it owns land that the Commonwealth wants for a long-planned expansion of South Station. And it’s hard to blame the cash-losing agency, which Congress constantly lectures to act more like a business, for holding out for the best deal for the land that it can get. But the price that the Post Office is now demanding for its Fort Point Channel properties is excessive. At a time when the transportation system faces plenty of other financial needs, the Baker administration should take a new look at whether there are more cost-effective ways to relieve congestion at the station.
Buying the postal property and using it for seven new commuter rail tracks was a high priority of the Patrick administration, which believed the purchase was critical to preparing the public transit network for the 21st century. The station is nearing its capacity, and won’t be able to absorb the extra trains if the commuter rail routes to New Bedford and Fall River ever open. As an added benefit, acquiring the Postal Service property would open up the adjoining stretch of Dorchester Avenue for public use. In a growing Seaport area, that would be a far smarter use of land.
But the pricetag is staggering, and has already grown at a worrisome rate. The cost of the whole project, which would also include expanding storage tracks, was estimated at $850 million in 2013. Now it’s $1.6 billion, including a new $300 million mail-sorting facility and parking garage for the Post Office — a generous deal the agency still won’t accept. For the Postal Service, there’s no price for foot-dragging.
The motivation behind the whole expansion project rests on the idea that there’s no other way for the station to absorb the rail traffic expected in coming decades. But the Baker administration’s newly appointed T oversight board should press for a fresh look at that assumption, and evaluate other options. While expanding South Station onto the Postal Service land still seems like an obvious solution to rail congestion, are there are other technological or logistical ways to achieve the same objective, even if they are less than ideal?
For instance, the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center has previously offered the use of its track, which is only a few blocks away. Could a few South Shore commuter rail trains a day terminate there, instead of at South Station, freeing up platform space at the main terminal? The T has also signaled an interest in operating smaller trains for the Fairmount Line, which can move more quickly into and out of stations. By using those shorter trains on more lines than initially proposed, could the T make more efficient use of the existing 13 tracks at South Station? And if South Station really must have extra tracks, can the terminal be expanded westward onto Atlantic Avenue, rather than eastward onto the Postal Service property? Finally, as former governors Mike Dukakis and Bill Weld have urged, a north-south rail link would eliminate the need for new platforms. That idea has long been dismissed as a costly pipe dream, but if the state is really entertaining the notion of paying nearly $2 billion for seven train tracks, there’s no reason not to at least develop a current cost estimate for the alternative Dukakis and Weld propose.