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November 1st, 2016
By: Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA)
Boston cannot compete in the global economy when its trains are on fire, like what happened on the MBTA’s Orange Line last week. Our transportation system is in crisis, and no one wants the chaos and cost overruns of another Big Dig to fix it. As a new advocate for the North-South Rail Link, I now understand why this project would deliver the biggest relief to commuters — and why it is not another Big Dig.
Today it can take an hour to drive across the city at rush hour. The T is slightly better — when it works. The fundamental problem is that our entire transit network has a 1.2-mile gap right where highway congestion is the worst: between North and South stations.
The rail link would enable every commuter train from the north to flow through to the south and west, and vice versa, whisking travelers directly to their destinations with minimal connections. This will take tens of thousands of cars off the road, relieve pressure on our main subway lines, significantly reduce daily commutes and complete the Northeast Corridor from Virginia to Maine in the process.
So why isn’t this another Big Dig?
First, the construction method would be entirely different. The Big Dig was built by “cut and cover” — digging a trench through the heart of the city and stopping for every water line or 18th-century clay pot encountered along the way. The rail link would be built with tunnel-boring machines that enter at either end, well outside downtown, and meet underground so deep beneath the city that nobody on the surface would even know.
Second, we wouldn’t have to try wild technologies such as freezing the ground to keep Interstate 93 running above the new tunnel during construction — a huge part of why Big Dig costs went out of control. Instead, North and South stations would continue operating without disruption until trains switch to the link when it opens. And roads would stay open and uninterrupted.
Building the rail link is like doing arthroscopic surgery, with the tiniest incisions, versus cracking a patient’s chest for open heart surgery as we did with the Big Dig. And, we know it works. The Swiss just built a rail tunnel under the Alps that cost less than the Big Dig even though it is 10 times longer than the 3.5-mile Central Artery tunnel.
Boston is not the only city suffering from disconnected train stations; it is a common problem, and cross-city rail links are the common solution. London’s doing it with Crossrail, which is nearly five times the length of the modest 2.8-mile tunnel required for the North-South Rail Link, and it’s being completed on time and on budget. In fact, it’s going so well that the city just authorized a second underground rail link before the first is even finished.
Earlier this year, I visited Crossrail to see how it’s being built, walking the tunnels under the heart of London’s financial district where, on the surface, you can barely tell anything is going on at all. Business and commerce continue as usual, with the exception of places near future stations where real estate investment is already skyrocketing in mere anticipation of the completed link.
We should expect the same thing in Boston, but economic growth would not only happen downtown. The rail link would connect cities and towns throughout the state, making it far faster than driving to take a train directly from the North Shore to the South Shore, or from anywhere west of the city to anywhere else. Communities with no direct access to the South Boston Seaport or the Northeast Corridor to Maine and New York would now have seamless connections. That means hundreds of thousands of people would have easier, faster access to good-paying jobs, and housing would boom outside the city.
When it comes to downtown, Gov. Charlie Baker is right that we need to invest in the reliability and capacity of the “core transit system.” But his plan to expand South Station would do just the opposite, adding thousands of riders to the MBTA’s already-jammed Red Line.
A highway project on the scale of the Big Dig has never been attempted before or since, but cities around the globe are investing in underground rail links. Rather than ignore their experience, we should learn from it, and build Boston a globally-competitive transportation system as well.
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