That Time Boston Could Have Had a North-South Rail Link for $8 Million

As part of my research project, I’ve been doing some looking into Boston’s North-South Rail Link concept–the idea of a tunnel linking, finally, North Station and South Station. NSRL is a complicated project whose merits are certainly up for debate (though I tend towards thinking it’s a good idea), but that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon anytime soon. But did you know that there was a point at which Boston could have had the tunnel built at minimal cost to taxpayers?

A March 8th, 1910 headline in the Boston Globe blares :

byrnes

The gist of the accompanying article was that Timothy E. Byrnes, Vice President of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, had conveyed to the state’s legislative committee on metropolitan affairs that the New Haven and the Boston & Maine–then united under the ownership of J.P. Morgan protege Charles Mellen–would be perfectly willing to pay most of the costs of a tunnel between Boston’s two stub-end stations, if the city would let them. The catch? They wanted the city to create a “boulevard” between the two stations, presumably cutting a broad swath through downtown Boston to enable cheap cut-and-cover tunneling.  The railroads estimated the costs to the city at $10 million–approximately $240 million today–of which they were offering to cover one-fifth, plus the costs of the tunnel itself, and of electrification of the Boston suburban rail network. Byrnes claimed the tunnel–and accompanying electrification–could be finished within three years, hauling both passengers and freight between northern and southern New England.

Surely, $8 million was a lot of money in 1910. But with the railroads offering to cover 2/3 of the cost of a tunnel, how did a project that would have proved so advantageous to the city that the idea is still being brought up a century later die?

Just four days after Byrnes–who had been on his way out of the hearing chamber at the end of the day when asked to speak–dropped his bombshell on the committee, the city responded. The Globe headline on March 12th read:

city rejects

Babson was the city’s Corporation Counsel, who made sure to tell the committee that “under present conditions the tunnel would not be worth to the city anything like an outlay of $8,000,000” and that “the city should not own the tunnel because it does not own the railroads at each end.” A legislator suggested that the railroads might lease the tunnel from the city, paying 5.5-6% interest and with ownership reverting to the city after 40 years, but neither Babson nor the railroads were amenable to that suggestion.

The tunnel idea did not die immediately–according to one article I have found, it was still kicking around two years later, as part of contentious negotiations between Mellen and the Massachusetts legislature over the fact that his control of both the B&M and the NYNH&H gave him a near-monopoly on rail traffic in New England. The idea of joint government-railroad control of the tunnel, based on a lease with relatively steep interest, had resurfaced, and government investment in the tunnel was on the table in return for Massachusetts allowing Mellen to exercise full control of the B&M (which the legislature had previously intervened to stop). But the Mellen monopoly was, by 1912, in its last days; besieged by legislative action, lawsuits, and public pressure, the New Haven would soon divest itself of the B&M, though not before 21 of its directors (though not Mellen) were indicted for conspiracy to monopoly. I haven’t delved deep enough to know exactly when the tunnel idea last saw the light, but it seems to have died a quiet death.

From a public policy perspective, it’s hard to look back at this episode and resist the impulse to punch a wall. The short-sightedness of the public officials who could have allowed the tunnel to be built–and to high standards, with four tracks and electrification of the Boston suburban network!–is remarkable. But 1910-12 was a very different time in America, a time when railroads were very much still an immediate enemy in public life and a chief target of progressive reformers. And indeed, the 1910 tunnel proposal was very much a product of monopoly–it was integral to Mellen’s vision of a unified NYNH&H and B&M (which, according to the 1912 article, would have been re-branded as “New England Lines”), and the public benefits, while substantial, were entirely secondary. And as quick as we are to condemn brutal transportation-oriented urban renewal in Boston and other cities, can we really look back and say that the idea of clearing a boulevard between North and South Stations was moral?

A later vision of a transportation conduit through downtown Boston. http://www.cyburbia.org/gallery/data/6518/00w.jpg

Land clearance for a later transportation conduit through downtown Boston. http://www.cyburbia.org/gallery/data/6518/00w.jpg

Though we know that constructing the tunnel would have had horrible outcomes for the residents in its way, and it might have strengthened the Mellen monopoly, it’s hard to feel any other way than that Boston’s objection to the project was short-sighted. A full century later, the proposal to build a similar project is still percolating, and it’s hard not to wonder–if there is still an argument to be made for a tunnel, now that the region has sprawled and developed away from the rail-oriented suburban mini-cores that predominated then, how different might the suburban development of the Boston region have looked if city officials had been more willing to work with the railroads 105 years ago?

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4 thoughts on “That Time Boston Could Have Had a North-South Rail Link for $8 Million

  1. As your last picture notes, the irony is that they ended up carving a swath through the city 50 years later with the central artery.

    Knowing that they ended up bulldozing the land through the center of the city anyway, it’s even more tempting to embrace since the city ended up with all of the destruction and none of the transit network benefits – but hindsight is 20/20.

  2. Do you know how wide the boulevard needed in 1910 was proposed to be? People automatically think of 150′ wide freeway ROWs when they think of carving out a transportation corridor through a city, but the idea of widening boulevards on a smaller scale was common in 1910. Many colonial streets in Boston, e.g. Hanover St, had been widened by that time. Even taking 15′ track centers, 10′ clearance, and 5′ ancillary (surely wider than would have been built in 1910) would allow 4 tracks in a 75’… well within reason, especially compared to 150′-200′ for the Central Artery.

    • That’s a good question. No, the newspaper articles don’t mention a width, and I doubt planning ever got to that stage. I imagine you’re right that they weren’t thinking of anything like the Central Artery, and since it was being done with private money they would have tried to make it as narrow as possible. In the end, I think it’s pretty clear that this was a hugely missed opportunity.

  3. Pingback: Don’t Talk About the North-South Rail Link without Context | Itinerant Urbanist

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