North-South Link Tunnel: It’s About Time

Recent studies on the feasibility of an underground tunnel to connect North and South Stations prompted by Congressman Seth Moulton, and completed by students of the Harvard Kennedy School. suggests that the cost may be lower than originally believed. The report: Connecting the Northeast: A Cost Estimate for the North South Rail Link, was completed in August 2017. While anyone in their right mind considering Boston’s over priced major construction projects would be justified in questioning whether Boston can actually complete a transportation construction project without fleecing the tax payers- especially when the MBTA is involved- the report deserves to be considered.

The North-South Link is estimated in the report of costing 5.9 billion dollars in 2025 dollars, and what it will accomplish almost sounds like a bargain too good to be true. In the report, the authors say: “The North South Rail Link (the “Link”) would connect North Station and South Station through one or two underground tunnels. If built, the Link would permit Amtrak and commuter rail passengers to traverse Boston without interruption. It would also allow residents of Boston suburbs to access any commuter rail station throughout the city without switching to another mode of transportation.”

While taking two subway trains across town, (going from the Red Line to the Orange Line and vice versa, doesn’t seem that onerous to many inner city dwellers, this proposal would allow trains from north and south destinations to Boston to connect rather effortlessly, meaning Boston would be a true Hub. Commuters who don’t currently take trains to Boston because of poor connections might suddenly see themselves leaving their cars at their local commuter stations, rather than driving in town to work every day. There aren’t exact figures on how much this would reduce commuter traffic, but few dispute that it would. Where other cities that had disconnected train systems (notably Philadelphia) have made similar projects, the results have been significantly increased downtown train efficiency.

This is a project that has been talked about for years that was almost done during the big dig, and one that is advocated by Mike Dukakis, the last governor who really actively advocated public transportation in our state. Some of the project savings are attributed to some pretty fancy mathematics, and other savings cite recently improved efficiency of tunnel boring machines. Seth Moulton is on record saying “I believe this is the most significant infrastructure project contemplated for the New England region. It would be truly transformative and very reasonable to do.”

The city of Boston is growing with real estate development, but it has a relatively small transportation foot print and it will be in a future battle to ease congestion unless we make mass transit truly modern and convenient, commuters won’t use it. Anyone who has seen how quickly the big dig has become congested, must know Boston needs to improve train access.

The Baker administration has been considering the expansion of South Station over the North- South Link, and has been criticized by Moulton (Mouton called it a “2 billion-dollar waste.”) for doing so, largely because he said the station expansion would be obsolete in a decade, and if the North South Link was done instead, the South Station expansion would not be necessary. We hope that Charlie Baker doesn’t get cold feet like Mitt Romney did when the opportunity presented itself before, and that Boston finally connects itself after all these years.