The North South Rail Link has been bubbling up in the news recently (only partially because of me); perhaps as Boston realizes that it won’t meet the needs of the next century by expanding on the mistakes of the past. Now comes word that a Harvard-led team examined the cost of the project and found that while it would be costly, it wouldn’t be the $15 billion Big-Dig-esque boondoggle the Romney administration feared when it sidelined the project in 2006. (Remember that when the T doesn’t want to build something, they just make up numbers.) Given the immense savings from the project and the potential to free up huge parcels of prime real estate (that’s the topic of another post entirely), the $4 to $6 billion proposal is right in the ballpark of where a realistic cost-benefit analysis would show long-term benefits, despite the initial cost.
But I’m not going to touch on that (today, at least). I am going to touch on a mistake that everyone makes when they talk about the NSRL: the inclusion of North Station. That’s right. I don’t think North Station belongs in the North-South Rail Link, because North Station is not now—nor has it ever been—in the right location. Since we’re talking about building an entirely new station 80 feet underground, there’s no rule which says that we have to have the exact same stations. South Station belongs. North doesn’t.
Let’s look at the current downtown stations in Boston. Here’s South Station and Back Bay, showing everything within a half mile:
South Station is surrounded by some highway ramps and water, but otherwise well-located in between the Financial District and the Seaport, and it also has a Red Line connection. Now, here’s North Station:
See the problem here? Note how nearly everything to the north of North Station has no real use: it’s highway ramps, river, and parking lots. No housing. No jobs. So that when people get off the train at North Station, they almost invariably walk south, towards South Station. You could move North Station half a mile south and pretty much everyone would still be within half a mile of the train station. North Station has never been in the right location, but is there as an accident of history: it was as close in as they could build a station nearly 200 years ago (well, a series of stations for several railroads) without bulldozing half the city. It’s the right place for a surface station, but if you have the chance to build underground, it’s not.
Most NSRL plans try to mitigate this with a third, Central station, somewhere near Aquarium Station, but this has the same issue as North Station: half of the catchment area is in the Harbor:
This would give you three stations doing the job of two. Each train would have to stop three times, but the two northern stops could easily be replaced by a single stop somewhere in between. I nominate City Hall plaza. It would connect to the Orange, Green and Blue lines (at Government Center and Haymarket) and, if you draw a circle around it, it wouldn’t wind up with half of the circle containing fish.
North Station would still be served by the Orange and Green lines, and it would allow the North-South Rail Link to serve the efficiently and effectively serve the greatest number of passengers. A pair of stations in Sullivan Square and near Lechmere could allow regional access to the areas north of the river, which would sit on prime real estate if the tracks were no longer needed (they’d be underground). Since stations are much more expensive to build than tunnels (you can bore a tunnel more easily than a station), it might wind up cheaper, too.
Putting it all together, here’s a map showing the areas accessible under both the two-station and three-station schemes. Shown without any shading are areas within half a mile of the stations in both plans. Red areas are areas which are within a half mile of the three-station plan but not the two station plan, blue areas are within half a mile of stations in the two-station plan but not the three-station.
This shows that if you are willing to put a station in the vicinity of Government Center, you can get the same coverage in downtown Boston with just two stations. You lose the areas shaded in red, but these are mostly water and highway ramps. Instead, you gain most of Beacon Hill and the State House. It seems like a fair trade. (Yes, you lose direct access for Commuter Rail from North Station during major events at the Garden, but a Government Center/Haymarket station would only be a six minute walk away, or a two minute ride on two subway lines.)
In Commonwealth Magazine, I said that we shouldn’t double-down on the mistakes of the past by building larger, inefficient stub-end terminals. The same goes for North Station. The station itself is in the wrong place. If we build a North-South Rail Link, there’s no need to replicate it just because it’s always been there. Downtown Boston is compact enough it only needs two stations (plus the third at Back Bay). North Station isn’t one of them.