“PACT TO ALLOW South Station rail expansion” read the headline in the Globe, heralding an imminent move of the United States Postal Service from its Fort Point Channel property and clearing the way to add four new tracks at the busy rail terminal next door.
That was in July.
July 2000, that is.
Since then, the move of the postal service and the expansion of South Station has become a kind of running city-planning joke — it’s repeatedly said to be imminent, and yet never happens. The state reached another deal to move the postal service in 2011, and as recently as 2015 the postal service protested a Globe editorial questioning progress on the transaction.
Now here we are in 2019 — a half-decade after negotiations were said to be on the “five-yard line.”
The postal service can deliver mail to Honolulu tomorrow, but it’s time to come to terms with the obvious: This deal has been marked as undeliverable. Last month, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Transportation, MassDOT, said there have been “no developments” with the postal service. A USPS spokesman said “there are currently no active negotiations or talks on the subject.”
The state has consistently said that it needs the space occupied by the post office because the rail terminal is at capacity. The limited real estate at South Station, which the T shares with Amtrak’s intercity trains, has become a barrier to adding new train service south of the city. Riders want more service — including new commuter rail lines to New Bedford and Fall River — and that, says the state, requires more station space.
Just as consistently, critics of the proposal have said that spending billions of dollars to expand South Station is a waste of money, and that the state should just build the North-South Rail Link to connect the two halves of the commuter rail system instead.
Here’s the thing: The argument appears to be moot, because even if South Station expansion were the best choice on paper, it’s just not happening. It’s now apparent that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor even the Massachusetts congressional delegation will dislodge the post office.
That’s not the fault of any of the five Massachusetts governors since 2000. And the Baker administration is, at least, working around the stalemate, going ahead with what it terms “early action projects” at South Station that aren’t contingent on the real estate deal. For instance, the state just received a $41 million federal grant designed to upgrade signals and potentially lengthen existing platforms to permit longer trains.
But state officials have always talked about new tracks as the most critical aspect of the project, and that does require a post office move. Instead of planning the state’s transportation future around a transaction that history strongly suggests will never occur, state officials ought to shift to other strategies to accommodate growth.
What would that look like? The state’s in the process of hammering out a long-term strategy for commuter rail in Greater Boston. One of the scenarios under consideration includes a North-South rail link, and two options feature neither a new tunnel nor an expanded South Station. Developing those three scenarios further would be wise.
TransitMatters, a transportation advocacy group in Boston, suggests there are also ways to wring more out of the existing station, with operational changes that would add capacity without the need to expand the station itself. On Thursday, it issued a report saying that by reworking tracks around the station, upgrading the signals and electronics, and raising speed limits, the T can move more trains through the station area.
Given how much effort so many people in state government have put into South Station expansion plans, the inertia at Fort Point Channel must be frustrating. If by some miracle a deal with the post office comes together, the state can always put expansion back on the table. But at this point, who’d be willing to take that bet? The state needs better rail service, and an immovable post office can’t become a reason not to deliver it.