By Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- The Senate voted Thursday to preserve a 1.5-mile underground right-of-way connecting North Station and South Station, with supporters of the transportation bond bill amendment saying the "dream" of some day connecting the two rail hubs can stay alive if the path is protected.
Sen. James Eldridge of Acton and Sen. Cynthia Creem of Newton promoted the amendment to the $13.1 billion capital spending bill, with Eldridge saying it also included $5 million for an environmental impact study.
Creem noted two of the project's biggest supporters are her constituents, Brookline Democrats Michael Dukakis, the former governor, and John Businger, the former state representative.
Most agree the project, if it's ever launched, would be expensive as it would require tunneling under downtown Boston. Doing so would resurface the experience of the Big Dig, the costly overhaul of Boston's highway tunnel networks that was notoriously over-budget.
The benefit of the so-called North-South Rail, Eldridge said, is the connection would close the only rail transit gap along the East Coast between Washington D.C. and Portland, Maine. During floor debate, Eldridge raised the potential for the project to facilitate uninterrupted rail service up the East Coast and into Canada.
Claiming it could open up the rail corridor to the kind of high-speed train service available in other countries, Eldridge speculated that Dukakis had spoken to many senators about the North-South rail.
"It's a really, really important project that would create thousands of jobs," Eldridge said.
Like the Senate proposal, the House-approved transportation bond bill (H 3860) includes a provision naming South Station in Boston after Dukakis. At a recent hearing, Senate Bonding Committee Chairman Brian Joyce (D-Milton) said Dukakis did not want the transportation hub named for him without a commitment to build the rail link.
As debate on the bill continued Thursday, Eldridge tweeted, "Highlight of the day: calling Governor Dukakis to give him good news that North-South Rail Link received $5m earmark for Env Impact Report"
Massachusetts lawmakers last year raised gas and tobacco taxes to boost investments in transportation, but resisted larger tax hikes sought by Gov. Deval Patrick that the governor said would have produced enough money to address longstanding transportation system maintenance and expansion needs.
The biggest single spending authorization in the Senate bill is $2.3 billion to extend commuter rail service to New Bedford and Fall River, the so-called South Coast Rail. Even with the new tax revenues on the books, Joyce told his colleagues Thursday that he didn't know when the state's finances would permit that project to begin.
Addressing the potential for the North-South Rail to get done, Eldridge, perhaps understating the case, said, "Obviously, it's a project that's perhaps a few years away."