Scott Van Voorhis

Just call it a case of tunnel vision. 

Supporters of the North-South Rail Link have built up quite a head of steam, with former Govs. Michael Dukakis and Bill Weld touting the proposed downtown Boston rail tunnel as a miraculously low-cost elixir for the state’s battered commuter rail system.  

But the much-touted rail tunnel jumped the tracks in spectacular fashion last week, with a new state cost estimate slapping a price tag on it that rivals even that of the Big Dig. 

The tunnel proposal’s derailment is good news for anyone worried about another massive Boston infrastructure project draining scarce dollars from our already virtually bankrupt commuter rail system and our traffic-clogged highways and byways. 

OK, it’s probably too early to consign this boondoggle in the making to the junkyard just yet. After all, it has been a favorite of Boston’s powerful construction unions for decades now, not to mention Amtrak, for which the gap between Boston’s two main rail hubs is an obstacle to growth. 

But there is a thing called credibility. And North-South Rail Link’s supporters, in their ridiculously rosy cost projections, have all but squandered any right to be taken seriously on this make-or-break issue. 

Just take Congressman Seth Moulton, a big downtown rail tunnel fan who stretched credulity last year with claims the project would now cost a mere $2 billion.  

That was down from their earlier, already suspect estimates in the $8 billion range, the reduction coming from the use of tunnel boring machines. 

Both numbers, though, look almost equally ridiculous against a preliminary estimate put out by the Baker administration that pegs the price at anywhere from a bare minimum of $12 billion to over $21 billion. 

That’s just a shade behind the Big Dig, which would end up costing more than $24 billion after starting off at a much more modest $2.8 billion. 

No parallels there, though. 


Dismissing Projections 

True to form, the tunnel’s biggest boosters tried to waive off the state’s projections as if they were just some unpleasant diesel fumes belched out by a passing T locomotive. 

Dukakis argued the numbers in the state cost estimate “bear no relation to reality,” according to the State House News Service, while Moulton panned the state estimates in a confusing statement to the Globe that appears to pan it for its “horse and buggy” mentality. 

Says Moulton: “This study analyzed the rail link in the context of the commuter rail network of today – an exercise akin to examining the costs of an interstate highway system while assuming that people will continue to travel by horse and buggy.” 

But honestly, the only numbers that “bear no relation to reality” are the ones tunnel heads like our two former governors and Moulton have been using to push the project. 

Really, I’m not sure what world – or reality – the North-South Rail Link fans are living in. But if you truly believe a giant publicly-funded infrastructure project in downtown Boston can be pulled off on the cheap, then I have some hot real estate to sell you in North Korea after Kim Jong Un trades in his nukes for condominiums in the new Trump Tower Pyongyang. 

A Harvard feasibility study commissioned by rail tunnel supporters cited a study that found that 90 percent major infrastructure projects cost more than first projected, “often by large margins.” 

For Boston, which, has never seen a project built without some sort of overrun – UMass Boston’s budget-busting campus overall and construction of the new Boston convention center in the early 2000s, to name two – that number is pretty surely a straight up 100 percent. 

But it’s also just pathetically bad politics to downplay the costs of a major public infrastructure project. 

Maybe 30-something Moulton is too young to fully appreciate the years of negative and, at times, outraged media coverage the Big Dig generated as state officials were forced to steadily up the project’s price-tag.  

Official denials were eventually followed by grudging acknowledgements of major cost increases that then morphed into public outrage. 

Here’s some unsolicited advice for the die-hard supporters of the North-South Rail Link: Cut the happy talk about how easy and inexpensive drilling a tunnel underneath downtown Boston will be.  

No one believes you and for good reason – Massachusetts taxpayers have heard this nonsense one too many times. 

Better to face the truth up front and letting the chips fall where they may than engage in years of tawdry deceptions. 

You’ll make a more convincing case. And even if you don’t get your precious rail tunnel, at least you’ll emerge with your self-respect intact. 


Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at 

North-South Rail Link Reminiscent of the Big Dig

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 3 min