Another Big Dig?
The plan to connect the North and South rail stations may be derailed.

BOSTON – In the late 1800s, the rivalry between railroad barons led to the construction of two separate train stations a mile apart in downtown Boston, one to serve the northern routes and the other to points south.

At the dawn of the next century, according to legend, it was the early taxicab lobby – thriving on ferrying passengers between the two depots – that thwarted the first proposal to build an underground rail line connecting the two.

Now, nearly a century later, the completion of the one missing link in the northeast corridor’s rail line faces an even more daunting obstacle in a city just beginning to emerge from the havoc wreaked by the over-budget, behind-schedule, traffic-disrupting Big Dig.

“We have to be realistic that the federal government is not about to sink billions of dollars into another tunnel through downtown Boston,” said Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett.

The so-called North-South rail link, which – depending on who you ask – would cost anywhere from $3 billion to $9 billion and would send trains under the city through a new passageway burrowed beneath the recently opened Big Dig tunnels.

In the planning stages for nearly three decades, the project is championed by a group of fervent and untiring advocates, including former Gov. Mike Dukakis, who argue that the one-mile tunnel would ease transportation throughout New England and the northeast corridor.

“We have two rail systems that serve hundreds of thousands of people and connect to a million jobs, but they’re separated by one mile,” said Jeremy Marin of the Sierra Club. “If we could connect that gap, it could do wonderful things for our economy all up and down the eastern seaboard.”

Opponents, whose growing numbers include the new Romney administration, argue that closing this admittedly cumbersome one-mile gap is not the ideal use of scarce taxpayer dollars.

“Would it be better to have them linked? Sure,” said Dan Grabauskas, transportation secretary under Gov. Mitt Romney. “But to remedy today what was poor planning a hundred years ago, just cannot be or shouldn’t be something that would put other projects on the shelf.”

The administration is focusing on upgrading the existing system, establishing an “urban ring” bus system around the outskirts of the city, and making a new rail connection to Logan International Airport – and doesn’t want to spend any more money on the project until other states agree to help cover its cost.

And then there is the conundrum of the $14.6 billion Big Dig, the most expensive highway project in national history. It sucked money out of road projects across the state and may have strained the goodwill of the other congressional delegations from around the country.

“Folks from other states, having seen the tremendous amount of federal dollars that have gone into this project, are somewhat skeptical about new megaprojects, particulary projects that would benefit Boston and Massachusetts,” said Paul Guzzi, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Besides its location and its potential, multibillion-dollar price tag, however, supporters argue, the north-south link has nothing in common with the infamous Big Dig.

While the Central Artery project gained a reputation as an engineering marvel, due to the unique problems it posed and solved, the new rail tunnel would be built with a time-tested, straightforward technology.

“This one’s easy,” said Dukakis, the former Democratic presidential nominee and current Amtrak vice chairman.

Burying the Central Artery beneath Boston benefits only the metropolitan region. But the link would ease transportation through all of Massachusetts and the entire northeast corridor by joining together the lines of the former Boston, Maine, and New Haven railroads.

“It’s time to do some things for the people of this state who don’t happen to live in Boston,” said Dukakis.

While space was saved for the creation of the link as part of the Big Dig, project officials ultimately abandoned any thought of adding its multibillion-dollar cost onto the ever-growing price tag of the Central Artery project.

Studies have continued, but support seems to be waning, especially as the state grapples with an estimated $3 billion budget gap.

The MBTA general manager notified the Federal Transit Administration recently that the project, which he estimated at $8.7 billion, was unrealistic given the state’s shaky financial situation. The Sierra Club and other supporters put the estimate closer to $3.6 billion, arguing that the higher total includes unnecessary contingencies and calculates the pricetag in 2010 dollars rather than the current-day cost.

When the concept of the Big Dig was posed to him decades ago, Dukakis said, it was the prospect of the link that sold him on the project – that, and the elimination of the unsightly scar of the green highway structure through the center of the city.

“They told me that we could get rid of this damn wall, we could put a rail line down the middle of it, and do it all with highway money,” Dukakis said. “As soon as they said you could get the north-south link with this thing, then I said, ‘You got me.”‘

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