Happening Now

Dear MassDOT: What Are You Waiting For?

December 12, 2018

by Jim Mathews, President & CEO, Rail Passengers Association

My week began with a plea for some action – finally! – on the vitally important North-South Rail Link project in Boston. On Monday night, I joined former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in Boston to testify at a MassDOT public-comment session, and added Rail Passengers’ voice to others who questioned the latest, $17 billion, estimate for the project offered by MassDOT and its consultants, ARUP. The biggest flaw, in my view, is that their inflated estimates (which we think are closer to the $5 billion a Harvard study laid out last year) were paired with nearly zero consideration of the benefits. The result? A study that seems to show a bloated, breathtakingly expensive decade-long project with very few quantifiable benefits.

In MassDOT’s defense, they’re hemmed in somewhat by a process that defines the scope of their studies and the kinds of questions they can consider. But we believe that only means that the process itself should be changed…not that we should make policy on the basis of studies that everyone acknowledges offer only an incomplete picture. The answer from one of the study’s authors, gamely on hand to field questions from the crowd, was particularly dissatisfying. To paraphrase, “assessing benefits is too hard, so we counted mostly costs.” After spending literally years on this study, the taxpayers deserve a better answer than “it was too hard.”

The country deserves a better answer too. Because this is not just a Boston project, or a regional project, or a Massachusetts project. The NSRL is truly a national issue, connecting Maine to Virginia by closing an unconscionable one-mile gap between North and South stations.

And while we’re talking about costs, it’s time we all recognize that the cost of doing nothing…is high. Congestion last year imposed $5.7 billion in costs on Boston commuters alone. And every year we wait to take action, the cost of doing something goes up. Meanwhile, 60 world-class cities around the globe have made these kinds of investments to transform their legacy commuter rail systems into an all-day regional rapid transit system. Anyone who has hopped aboard France’s RER service from Paris can back me up on this. Meanwhile, the benefits haven’t been too hard to quantify in the communities that have made these investments. Toronto? Every dollar they’ve spent has returned $2.60 in value from shorter travel times and cleaner air. That’s a pretty good return, in my book.