Won’t this be too expensive?
Cost estimates for the North South Rail Link have ranged from $2 Billion to over $8 Billion. Recent experience in other cities suggests that a cost toward the middle of this range should be achievable, provided we adopt global "best practices" for project management and the latest construction techniques.
While project cost is obviously very critical, it is also important to put the construction cost in a holistic economic context that reflects the long term savings and benefits, particularly the avoidance of terminal expansions at North and South Stations (currently at least $2 Billion), the permanent operating savings (estimated at more than $67 Million per year), the real estate benefits across the region, the impact on regional competitiveness and job creation, and the time savings. When these factors are appropriately weighed, the project’s Cost / Benefit ratio is unparalleled.
Won’t this become another "Big Dig"
While the Central Artery Tunnel Project, or "Big Dig", provided many benefits for the City of Boston, its cost overruns and poor quality control made it an emblem of waste and inefficiency that continues to cast a long shadow over other major infrastructure projects, however needed and valuable they may be. In fact, although the NSRL is located within the same physical corridor, it bears little resemblance to the Big Dig. It will be built using the latest versions of the construction techniques used to build the Red Line Extension Project in Cambridge and Somerville in the 1980’s, which was completed on schedule and on budget, and has more than paid for itself in the years since. Many other cities are completing rail links similar to our own NSRL at very reasonable cost.
If this is such a good idea, why wasn’t it done long ago? Just a few years of the construction of North and South Stations, at the turn of the 20th century, the limitations of stub-end rail terminals had become apparent, Despite the presence of a passenger connection between them – an elevated train running along Atlantic Avenue, - the railroads, the City and the Legislature attempted to build a tunnel connecting them. These plans were interrupted by the outbreak of WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII, followed by a sea change in transportation planning that favored highway expansion. Since the 1970’s the limitations of highways have become ever more clear, and the value of efficient rail service has again come to the fore. With our highways clogged, rail terminals now at the bursting point, land values rising, interest rates at historic lows, and many of our competitors liking their own rail networks, now is the time for Massachusetts to forge ahead with this long deferred project.
Won’t the grades and stations be too deep?
Building the project below existing infrastructure avoids most of the complications and surface disruption that plagued the Big Dig. The new tunnels will descent at a grade of 3% or less (3’ vertically for every 100’ horizontally), which is not excessive and has been fully vetted by rail experts. The new downtown stations themselves will be at about the same depth as Porter Square Station on the Red Line, but with larger, faster and more numerous escalators to handle the greater passenger volumes comfortably. There are many other successful stations at similar or greater depth. The recent Westminster Station, opposite Big Ben on London’s Jubilee Line, is the same depth. Several stations in Washington’s metro system are deeper. A station in Portland OR is twice as deep. Deeper stations avoid many of the construction and utilities conflicts that plagued the Big Dig. While the longer escalator runs add slightly to the travel time, this is largely offset by the fact that the escalators extend several hundred feet horizontally in all directions from multiple points along the platforms, expanding the stations’ convenient "reach" and creating larger "catchment" areas from adjacent urban districts.
What about the potential for flooding?
Most of our existing infrastructure, including both surface and underground rail and transit lines, is vulnerable to flooding. Both North and South Station and their related layover yards will be inundated in the event of a serious storm surge. Ironically, new underground tunnels and stations are much easier to protect, using modern flood gates at the limited number of openings, than surface facilities. Such systems are currently being installed in vulnerable parts of the New York rail and transit systems, with federal funding. Such protective measures will obviously be part of the North South Rail Link, and will improve the resilience of our system far more than the expansion of surface terminals.
How will diesel locomotives operate in the tunnels?
The Massachusetts commuter rail network includes both electrified and non-electrified lines. The NSRL tunnels will be fully electrified with an overhead high-voltage catenary system. Because the diesel locomotives that currently serve the non-electrified portions of our system cannot operate in tunnels, and are unable to use the catenary power system, special "Dual Mode" locomotives that are able to run on both power sources will be used. Several versions of this equipment have been operating for many years in New York, and a new generation of dual mode locomotives are operating successfully in Montreal and New Jersey. They provide excellent performance and operating flexibility in a hybrid system like ours, where electrification may be phased in over time.
What about the new diesel locomotives the MBTA just bought?
The MBTA recently acquired 40 new diesel locomotives, at a cost of $222 million, to replace its aging fleet. While these cannot operate through the NSRL for the reasons noted above, it is anticipated that many may be retained for use on lines that continue to terminate at the surface terminals. Any that are not needed can be sold to recover their residual value, which in the next 10 years should still be substantial.
Will the tunnels be safe?
For a host of reasons, rail tunnels are safer that highway tunnels: there are far fewer opportunities for collision, cargos are easier to monitor, and there is much less fuel present (and in the case of electric locomotives, none). In addition to these safety advantages, modern rail tunnels and stations are equipped with state of the art fire protection and egress systems to assure the highest levels of passenger safety.
But don’t we also need to expand South Station?
Since a unified rail system with run-through service operates so much more efficiently than a stub-end terminal, there is no reason whatsoever to add more surface tracks and platforms. The NSRL obviates the need for expansion at both of our downtown terminals, while also improving overall efficiency and performance. Terminal expansions, by contrast, waste billions of dollars for very little transportation benefit, while encumbering the city with more surface rail facilities. It is an obsolete approach that does not warrant public investment.
How long will it take to build the Rail Link?
A Peer Review team comprised of senior construction engineers reviewed the project schedule in detail and concluded that it could be built in about 5 years, following completion of design and permitting. With decisive leadership, the project could easily be operational within the next decade. The key to this is political will. If we do not act promptly to secure the alignment and needed access sites, the opportunity to build this needed and transformative project may well be lost forever.
What are the key next steps?
The first priority is to complete and update the engineering and permitting work that was suspended by the Romney Administration in early 2003. The circumstances that prompted this suspension are no longer relevant, and the need for rail unification has only increased in the years since. For this reason, the Legislature included $2 million in the 2014 Transportation Bond Bill to update prior analyses of the NSRL Project. Governor Baker has now authorized the first phase of this study, which will update the ridership, operational, land use, and environmental analysis that define the project's benefits. The second urgent task is the "safeguarding" of the project alignment, to prevent any incursions that could obstruct or complicate its construction.
The next step is to update the project cost estimates in light of the latest global expertise – which has allowed even costly places like Sweden and Switzerland to build similar projects at much lower cost than has been quoted here in Boston – and to create the financial structures to capture the region-wide benefit of the project in a holistic way. What counts is not just cost, but also the benefits, and particularly, the savings. When these are properly assessed, rail unification will be seen to more than pay for itself.