The value of rail unification has been recognized for many years, but the project has been repeatedly deferred. Why should it be done now?
While the inadequacy of both downtown terminals was forecast decades ago, we are just now confronting the staggering cost of expanding them – at least $2 Billion, for just 9 additional tracks – a very poor investment that is not scalable and requires us to expand surface rail on prime downtown sites. Applying these funds to rail unification will provide far greater and more lasting benefit, not just in Boston, but across our region.
"But the (SSX) pricetag is staggering, and has already grown at a worrisome rate. The cost of the whole project, which would also include expanding storage tracks, was estimated at $850 million in 2013. Now it’s $1.6 billion, including a new $300 million mail-sorting facility and parking garage for the Post Office — a generous deal the agency still won’t accept." -- Boston Globe, August 2, 2015
There is a widely held misconception that development revenue will pay some or all of this cost. The MBTA's own consultants advised them earlier this year that this is unlikely to be the case.
"Real Estate staff met with representatives of MassDOT's South Station Expansion (SSX) consultant team to discuss possible joint development alternatives which could be used to help fund the SSX project. The consultant team provided information which indicated that the cost of including joint development infrastructure (foundations, underground parking, access ramps, etc.) would leave little if any revenue from development to assist with the costs associated with the SSX project." -- MBTA General Manager's Report, January 2015
The past ten years have seen a stunning increase in construction activity in the City of Boston that has made urban land ever more scarce and valuable. In this context, the expansion of surface rail uses on prime downtown sites is not just careless, it’s downright foolhardy and fiscally irresponsible. Putting rail underground makes more sense than ever before.
(For more information about how train yards can be turned into useful and valuable land, see the Land Use Impacts image gallery.)
According to a recent study by The Urban Land Institute, America in 2015, more than half of all Americans now express a preference for "car-optional" living and working arrangements. For so-called "Millennials" (ages 19-37), this preference is even more widely held. Our next generation is looking for transportation solutions that are efficient, affordable, and convenient - and often do not involve the use of a car. Our transportation planning should reflect this.
When the NSRL was last analyzed, interest rates were over 6%. Even then, the project was financially sound. Interest rates are now at historic lows, currently below 3%. This gives us a precious window of opportunity to build critically needed infrastructure for a fraction of what it would have cost a few years earlier, and what it will likely cost of we delay. An article in the Economist states that an historic opportunity to improve infrastructure on the cheap is in danger of being squandered. Future generations will not look kindly on us if we fail to act when the conditions are so optimal. If we cannot build infrastructure when rates are this low, when can we?
Boston’s current prosperity is largely the fruit of wise and bold investments by prior generations, who built cutting-edge transit systems, libraries, parks and world-leading universities that remain a cornerstone of our prosperity. While our universities have continued to keep pace, and remain the envy of the world, we have neglected our transportation infrastructure. While we have coasted on our inheritance and dithered about our own legacy, other cities have been aggressively investing in their own infrastructure, creating long term competitive advantages. While visitors still flock to Boston, increasing numbers are surprised by the decrepitude of our transportation infrastructure, which our own eyes seem to overlook. We can still catch up, but we have a long way to go and have not yet begun.