Expansion of South Station gets big boost

$32.5m federal award may signal future funds

A photo of the preliminary design for the South Station expansion. The 111-year-old terminal is a hub for subway, bus, and rail traffic. A photo of the preliminary design for the South Station expansion. The 111-year-old terminal is a hub for subway, bus, and rail traffic.
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / October 26, 2010

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The Obama administration awarded $32.5 million to Massachusetts yesterday to plan the expansion of South Station, a project that officials say is needed to relieve commuter rail congestion, restore train service to New Bedford and Fall River, and run additional trains on the Worcester line.

The award bodes well for future federal support to finance construction of the station expansion, as well as to relocate a postal facility that sits on land that would be needed for the project, according to Jeffrey B. Mullan, secretary of the state Department of Transportation.

“What you’re seeing is that the federal government recognizes the importance of South Station . . . and is serious about its commitment to high-speed rail,’’ Mullan said. He called the station “the most important transportation asset in all of New England.’’

South Station is a hub for subway, bus, and rail traffic, bringing thousands of workers and visitors from across the region into downtown Boston. The grand, 111-year-old edifice houses New England’s busiest rail station, where about 48,000 passengers clamber off commuter rail trains every morning and take them home again every evening. Another 3,600 Amtrak passengers come through the station each day, according to the state.

South Station’s 13 platform tracks, the berths where passengers board and disembark, are crowded during peak morning and evening hours, when passenger trains arrive or depart every 60 to 90 seconds, making for what MBTA General Manager Richard A. Davey yesterday called “a very tight choreography.’’ Often those trains must sit idle, with passengers on board, while waiting for a berth.

The expansion would add seven to 11 new platform berths and would improve the system that allows trains from different tracks to come and go in sequence, without colliding.

The work would also be necessary for Amtrak and the federal government to pursue their vision of running faster trains and more frequent service between Boston and Washington.

“This is a 100-year opportunity for us to provide increased high-speed rail service to Boston and really the region,’’ Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray said yesterday in a conference call with reporters. “We think this is great news and really benefits the entire state.’’

The project would be particularly complicated because it would require relocating the US Postal Service’s General Mail Facility, which is adjacent to South Station, to allow expansion of the station along Boston’s Fort Point Channel.

State officials expect the grant to cover the cost of preliminary design and environmental review and permitting for the station’s expansion.

Big questions remain: namely, how much the project will cost, how long it will take, and where the postal service will end up.

Local planners, business leaders, and public transportation advocates celebrated the federal grant yesterday.

“This is just fantastic news for the Commonwealth,’’ said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the agency that provides planning assistance to Boston and 100 other area communities.

Draisen said the region’s shared goals — “to improve land use, to increase the number of jobs in the region, to reduce commute times on the roadways, and to cut greenhouse gas emissions’’ — are “literally dependent upon the improvement and the expansion of the South Station facility.’’

Nearly two-thirds of commuter trains begin or end their run at South Station, with the rest bound to or from North Station.

Transportation planners have talked for years about expanding South Station, but the state did not begin to pursue the project aggressively until Governor Deval Patrick was elected four years ago. Patrick has advocated expanding service to Worcester and restoring a Taunton-Fall River-New Bedford line that was eliminated 50 years ago, arguing that more commuter rail will boost the economic standing of the region, take cars off the road, and reduce air pollution.

Patrick’s principal opponent in the Nov. 2 election, Republican Charles D. Baker, has criticized the SouthCoast Rail project, estimated by the state to cost $1.4 billion to $2 billion, as being beyond the state’s means.

The application drew the endorsement of every member of the state’s congressional delegation as well as the Postal Service and the city. State officials and members of Congress made their case to Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, during his visit to Boston Oct. 14. The next day, Patrick personally called Szabo’s boss, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, to pitch South Station expansion.

In a statement, US Senator John F. Kerry called the competitive grant award “a victory for Massachusetts commuters that will position our transportation system for the future and put people to work on a critically needed infrastructure project.’’

Postal Service spokesman Dennis Tarmey also welcomed the news, saying the money “not only offers the Commonwealth a unique opportunity to expand high-speed and commuter rail capacity at South Station, but also provides the Postal Service with the opportunity to renew and modernize the facilities serving postal customers.’’

He said the Postal Service is considering a proposal to relocate its general mail facility near the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston, on land owned by the Department of Defense and the Massachusetts Port Authority.

The US Department of Transportation will not release the list of grant recipients until Thursday, but the Patrick administration said that among the other winners is Connecticut’s Department of Transportation, which will be granted $121 million for improvements to rail service between New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield. New Hampshire will receive $2.24 million to explore a rail link between Concord and Boston, and Maine will receive $600,000 to plan improvements to the Boston to Portland Downeaster service.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at

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