Happening Now

MassDOT Sandbags Passenger Rail

September 11, 2018

After spending roughly $40 million studying South Station Expansion, MassDOT only committed about $1.5 million to the NSRL study

When MassDOT initially agreed in 2017 to complete an updated feasibility study of the proposed North-South Rail Link (NSRL), many rail and transit advocates were skeptical. After spending roughly $40 million studying South Station Expansion (SSX), MassDOT was only committing about $1.5 million to the NSRL study (even though the legislature had authorized $2 million). The cynical view was that rather than an honest study, this would be an attempt to paint the project in a poor light, and perhaps kill it permanently. But Arup, the firm retained by MassDOT, had a good reputation, and cooler heads encouraged everyone to trust the process and see it through to completion.

Unfortunately, the early indicators were not good: Arup announced that it would focus mainly on the project’s costs while not spending much time, effort, or money on the project’s potential benefits; they would not be considering new last-mile options such as ride hailing services in their updated ridership models, instead relying on data that is a decade old; advantages for transit-oriented development, as well as additional job and housing opportunities through regional rail, would not be discussed; they promised to hold three public meetings to update the public on their progress, but announced those meetings very late and did little to promote them. Rail and transit advocates were growing more deeply concerned.

On Friday, MassDOT released their North South Rail Link (NSRL) Feasibility Reassessment Draft Report and are asking for public comment. The comment period will be open through October 19, 2018. Comments can be sent to [email protected] and should include “NSRL Draft Report Public Comment” in the subject line.

Some of the findings are as follows:

  • The NSRL would cost between $12 billion and $22.5 billion to complete. A study done last year by the Rappaport Institute at the Harvard Kennedy School put the project at a range of $3.8B (two-track) and $5.9B (four-track).

  • The inflation of the cost estimates from current dollars to 2028 (midpoint of the construction period) is 41%. The realistic possibility of moving the mid point to 2022 reduces the escalation to 15%, a significant number for the bottom line.

  • A “no build” cost option is not listed. This would need to include the millions of dollars spent annually moving non-revenue trains in and out of the system due to the dead-end nature of the stations. (A previous version of this blog erroneously reported that a "no build" option was missing completly. There is a "no build" service plan starting on page 42 of the draft.)

  • Inevitable improvements to MBTA infrastructure such as double tracking, system electrification, and procurement of new equipment are attributed to the NSRL cost. This proposed plan implies there are no accommodations anticipated for expansion of MBTA or Amtrak service between now and 2040.

  • The future service is based on infrastructure capacity and not estimated service demands. This results in more service than needed and running empty trains. This is not standard planning procedure.

  • Attleboro is omitted from the Gateway cities list, as are potential South Coast Rail connections with Taunton, New Bedford, and Fall River. Better connections to Providence, RI and Portland, ME are also not mentioned.

  • A number of comparison projects are misrepresented in the draft, such as the Second Avenue Subway (NYC) and Crossrail (London).

  • Other than a few Amtrak trains, the need for layover space would be practically eliminated in Boston, that land could be sold for development and the proceeds should be credited to the project. None of the opportunities for economic development (Widett Circle, etc) have been fully explored.

  • No consideration for accommodating freight is included in the development of the future schedules.

We are asking you to review the MassDOT documents and show your support, and to raise any further concerns, for the project by submitting public comments highlighting the need for a more comprehensive EIS/EIR study that would take in account many of the necessary items that are missing from this current draft report. We are also asking MassDOT to hold a public meeting during this comment period.

The North-South Rail Link is a transformative project that has far-reaching benefits for the metro Boston area, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the whole of the Northeast. Travelers and commuters in our region deserve far better than the one-sided and fatally flawed study MassDOT commissioned.

Again, the comment period will be open through October 19, 2018. Comments can be sent to [email protected] and should include “NSRL Draft Report Public Comment” in the subject line.


Joseph Aiello
Rail Passengers Association Northeast Field Coordinator
[email protected]
(202) 408-8362 ext. 3210