Railroad to nowhere: another tunnel under Boston

Visions of sugarplums clog up public projects. Often they are promoted by gadflies who don’t have to make anything actually work–always to be paid with somebody else’s money. Lessons from childhood: “If it sounds to good to be true, then it isn’t true.”

Grand vision left disaster: In 1983, the second Dukakis administration, as led by a sometimes visionary Transportation Secretary Fred Salvucci, claimed that highway tunnels under Boston to replace the Fitzgerald Expressway would cost $2.35 billion, with Massachusetts paying only 15 percent and with the federal government funding the rest. “If it sounds too good to be true, then it isn’t true.”

Dukakis and Salvucci got federal funding for the Big Dig–over a veto from former Pres. Reagan–by a margin of one vote in the Senate. They did not manage the construction. Republican state administrations that managed the Big Dig and its aftermath of repairs–from Bill Weld through Mitt Romney–lied to the public about rapidly growing costs. Massachusetts taxpayers have been hit with at least 45 times the costs claimed in 1983.

So far, including interest, the financial disaster is at least $24 billion and counting–over two-thirds being paid by Massachusetts. As of 2006, about 80 percent of the state Department of Transportation and its routine projects were being funded with money borrowed for the Big Dig. The Democratic administration of Gov. Patrick straightened out budgets. However, while state government returned to pay-as-you-go, Big Dig debts are not scheduled to be retired until 2038–55 years after efforts began.

Railroad to nowhere: Many historic, congested cities–including London, Paris and New York City–have long-distance railroad stations outside a central district, connected by transit lines. Boston’s MBTA provides transit similar to the London Underground, Paris Metro and New York City subways. There is no unique need to link Boston’s North Station and South Station via a long-distance railroad track. It would become a railroad to nowhere.

Proposals for a long-distance railroad tunnel under Boston have circulated since the 1920s, when there was an elevated transit railway–closed in 1938 after lack of use and scrapped in 1942 for steel needed during World War II. Likely costs always outweighed likely benefits. The surface Union Freight Railroad along Atlantic Avenue, built in the 1870s, was abandoned in the late 1960s for lack of use. The surface Grand Junction Railroad through Cambridge and Somerville still connects between the Boston railroad stations. It is now owned by the MBTA and is used occasionally to transfer equipment between the north-side and south-side commuter-rail lines.

Atlantic Avenue Elevated and Union Freight Railroad
near South Station in Boston, c. 1915

BostonAtlanticAvenueElevated1915

Source: Wikimedia, copyright expired

For some local visionaries, practical issues don’t seem to matter. Former Gov. Dukakis, now Prof. Dukakis, apparently learned little from the Big Dig financial disaster. In 2014, he was touting yet another tunnel under Boston: the would-be railroad to nowhere. It would cost “as little as $2 billion” he claimed. We have heard the same line before from Prof. Dukakis, when it proved wrong by more than a factor of ten. For a public works project, governments rarely seek out designs and costs from lawyers or academics.

Former Transportation Secretary Salvucci, a Boston Latin and MIT grad who trained as a civil engineer, was not on board the Dukakis train. As quoted in 1992, he said a long-distance rail tunnel under Boston faced “any number of problems, each of which was fatal.” Although veteran observer Stephen Kaiser has called Salvucci’s tactics with state projects “Machiavellian,” he shows a clear instinct for self preservation.

$18-33 billion boondoggles: On June 18, 2018, a state-sponsored engineering analysis, performed by Arup Group of London, attached price tags to several plans for the railroad to nowhere, Depending on the plan, the designs, construction and equipment alone would cost from $12 billion to $22 billion–in the spending range of the Big Dig–according to the initial report.

Arup Group initial estimates were projected to mid-completion in 2028 and include new rolling stock and “investments to support increased service.” They do not include any interest on state bonds. If interest costs were comparable to the Big Dig, they would add around 50 percent to construction and equipment costs, resulting in total costs to taxpayers of about $18 billion to $33 billion.

According to Bruce Mohl, writing in Commonwealth, the House chair of the General Court’s Transportation Committee said the results show “how expensive and unnecessary the project really is…beyond the reach of any conceivable financing plan.” Final shoes will drop with release of a completed Arup Group analysis this fall, but as of mid-summer, 2018, the railroad to nowhere looks headed for scrap.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, July 28, 2018


Bruce Mohl, North-south rail link to cost at least $12.3 billion, Commonwealth, June 18, 2018

Adam Vaccaro, North-south rail link would cost $12 billion, maybe more, Boston Globe, June 18, 2018

North-South Rail Link Feasibility Reassessment, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, June 18, 2018 (See page 39 for combined estimates, excluding bond interest.)

Robert Huber, Michael Dukakis’s last stand, Boston Magazine, December 5, 2017

Mike Deehan, State House News, Dukakis teams with Weld to push rail link plan, Brookline (MA) Tab, November 10, 2014

Gil Propp, On and along the Grand Junction Railroad, Boston Streetcars, 2014

Eric Moskowitz, Add interest and Big Dig cost expected to top $24 billion, Boston Globe, July 11, 2012

Mark Bulger, Atlantic Avenue trains times two, Good Old Boston, December 12, 2011

John E. Petersen, The Big Bill, Governing, September 1, 2008

Sean P. Murphy, Big Dig’s red ink engulfs state, Boston Globe, July 17, 2008

Stephen H. Kaiser, History of transit policies and commitments relative to the Central Artery Project 1989-1992, Somerville (MA) Transportaton Equity Project, 2004 (See page 2 on Fred Salvucci abandoning a Boston rail tunnel.)

Alan Altshuler and David Luberoff, Mega-Projects, The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment, Brookings Institution Press, 2003 (See page 95, note 41, on Salvucci and the Boston “rail link” project.)

Craig Bolon, Billion-dollar splurge: Connecticut expands Hartford commuter-rail service, Brookline Beacon, June 21, 2018

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