north south rail link

^ the Boston University Bridge, seen here under repair in 2012, is the only current rail link between North of Boston and South of Boston. Will we build an actual connector ?

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If Governor Baker thought that securing his MBTA reform bill was the end of his transportation wars, he now knows differently. About a week ago a revived fight to build a North Station to South Station connector rail hit prime time, and yesterday came news that the Green Line expansion to Somerville and Medford might cost at least $ 1 billion more than anticipated — a stunning number.

So what does Baker do now ? He cannot set either one aside, as he was able to do with the Boston Olympics bid. The Olympics Bid was a trial balloon; Boston’s economy and social life may hurt without the Games, but only temporarily. Not so with Green Line expansion or the North-South rail connector. Dismissing either will impact our region’s transportation for many decades. That’s not to say that the decision to go ahead with either project is easy. Still, the two are not equal. The North to South rail connector remains conceptual, while Green Line expansion has reached the build-out point.

So, again, what decisions is Baker likely to make ? He hasn’t asked me, but I’d offer the following :

1, Green Line expansion should continue, even if the contract price can’t be brought into line with the engineer’s projections. The Feds have committed $ 1 billion to the project; it would be foolish to lose that.The City of Somerville needs the Green Line. So does Medford. Communities farther up Route 38 can use it. So can people who now pack I-93 to overflow at rush hour. If we’re serious about decreasing vehicle traffic — and carbon emissions — Green Line expansion must be finished, as soon as feasible. So I repeat: it should be done even if there’s a substantial cost overrun.

Two problems portend. First, a Green Line cost overrun means making hard decisions about repairing existing MBTA tracks, equipment, signals, and trains. These can NOT be put off, which means applying state monies currently slated to other state agencies. (DO I hear DCF reform ?) Second, anyone who has attended public meetings concerning Green Line expansion has seen the nitpicking and design unrealities that always get pushed into the mix. Green Line expansion cannot be finished anywhere close to budget if it takes on every bell and whistle desired by those who show up at public meetings.

That said, extension of the Green Line has already consequenced development in Somerville and the city’s entire economy. It can’t be set aside.

2. The North Station to South Station connection looks daunting. Certainly Baker should require thorough cost and engineering analysis of the project before deciding anything.

Digging a tunnel between the two stations means going very deep under immense structures. If you thought the Big Dig was an engineering nightmare 25 years ago, imagine what will be needed to tunnel under buildings vastly taller than those of 1990; under sewer lines, subway tunnels, and the depressed Central; Artery itself. It also might require relocating South Station and its current ten rail portals, because, imagining potential connector routes, I can’t see how it gets from North Station to South Station otherwise. The easiest route would be to underride Atlantic Avenue. Sixty years ago that roadway included train tracks of a connector railroad. I recall those trains : they were surface vehicles. Today’s connector would have to tunnel under the already very deep Blue Line tunnel — and under the Red Line tunnel, which, quite inconveniently, runs directly alongside South Station. How would the connector tunnel rise up steeply enough to go from under the Red Line to a surface connection with South Station’s ten rail portals ?

Perhaps a connector line could run alongside the Orange Line from North Station to Downtown Crossing, thence alongside the\ Red Line to South Station ? This too would be an engineering nightmare and a budget buster, and you’d still have the rise to surface problem, at both ends of the connection.

Lastly, what happens to the $ 1.6 billion expansion of South Station, planning for which is nigh complete, awaiting only agreement to move the Boston Post office ? Do we roll this project into the connector proposal and thereby delay it, even kill it ?

Advocates for building the connector speak passionately and hurl a blizzard of answers at you, to questions you ask — and to those you haven’t asked yet. Which only ratchets my skepticism up. Not skepticism for the idea. I support the concept. Why our city lacks a rail pass through, I’ll never understand. Lacking a connector forces cars onto the Central Artery which that groaning roadway can barely manage — and at rush hours, cannot. Someday the rail connector ought be built. I’m just not sure that now is the right time, given the huge dollar demands faced immediately by the MBTA, commuter rail, bridges and roadbeds.

On September 9th, Baker meets with the connector rails’ two most potent advocates : former Governors Dukakis and Weld. That should be quite the dust-up. Let’s see what comes of it.

NOTE : this story has been UPDATED as of 08.26.15 at 10.05 AM in light of what we now know about the economicsof Green Line extension.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere