Developers Seen As Key Ingredient In Several Multibillion-Dollar Transit Plans
As Boston weighs billions of dollars’ worth of transit repairs and upgrades, rail advocates are using real estate to elevate their case for some of the most ambitious proposals.
A June Red Line derailment continues to limit service on one of Boston’s busiest subway lines, and finding a way out of the transit nightmare is top of mind and the current source of the city’s perpetual frustration with traffic.
The MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation released a study last week estimating it would take $33B to electrify and upgrade the commuter rail network. Gov. Charlie Baker announced a 10-year, $18B transportation plan Thursday aimed at improving rail and roadways across the state.
A Monday Boston City Council hearing was a reminder that transit advocates, led by former Gov. Michael Dukakis, are still pursuing a 2.8-mile rail tunnel through downtown Boston to connect North and South Stations. Their latest argument could be music to developers’ ears.
“You can’t have a first-class regional rail system with a 1-mile hole in the middle of it,” Dukakis said. “Don’t let anybody tell you we can’t do this."
Supporters of the North-South Rail Link say the project is long overdue. Historic documents show Boston and Massachusetts officials considered a tunnel between the region’s two rail hubs as far back as 1912. Finding the political will for the project has been difficult, especially after the Big Dig was completed years late and billions of dollars over budget.
But Dukakis, and others who spoke at City Hall Monday night in support of the project, said current tunnel boring technology has improved since the Big Dig years, when Atlantic Avenue was ripped up to dig tunnels for the now-buried Central Artery.
Street-level activity wouldn’t be disrupted thanks to underground boring machines, and favoring the tunnels over South Station expansion could pave the way for billions of dollars in real estate development where trains would otherwise have to be stored during the day.
A 2018 MassDOT feasibility study estimates the linkage project could cost between $9B and $18B, depending on the scale of the build-out.
NSRL supporters Monday point to a Harvard study that estimated the project to likely cost in the more affordable $4.5B to $6.5B range. They also chided the transportation agency for not taking into account the economic benefits of linking North and South Stations compared to just expanding South Station, the plan supported more by the Baker administration.
“Do we flail around for needed layover facilities that use up valuable land for other purposes?” said former state Rep. John Businger. “The North-South Rail Link is the transportation, economic and environmental solution we need.”
If South Station were to expand by seven tracks, additional layover facilities would be needed to park trains. MassDOT has identified Widett Circle and Beacon Park Yard – two areas currently coveted by developers – as potential layover sites. The U.S. Postal Service facility next to South Station would also be demolished as part of the expansion initiative.
Bypassing expansion in favor of the NSRL would keep the postal facility and Widett Circle open for private development. Based on transactions at nearby Fan Pier, choosing NSRL over South Station expansion could unlock $10B in downtown development, according to Lucas Santos, a former transportation director for long-shot presidential candidate Rep. Seth Moulton.
Supporters also pointed to how the Big Dig, despite its cost overruns, ushered in a construction boom by connecting the Seaport to downtown Boston.
The transformative potential is why big-ticket items like the train tunnels and Baker’s comprehensive transportation plan all include some degree of planned partnership with the private sector.
Groups like NAIOP and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce have been early supporters of Baker’s bill, which would expedite public-private partnerships on land owned by either the MBTA or state.
Although the NSRL hearing lacked clear points of where the private sector could assist in linking the train stations, MassDOT and the MBTA have increasingly worked with private developers elsewhere on the train network to beef up service and upgrade facilities.
NB Development Group financed the development and construction of an infill commuter rail station at Boston Landing. A combined $100M investment from Federal Realty Investment Trust and government bodies boosted infrastructure around the developer’s Assembly Row in Somerville, including an infill Orange Line stop.
“I do believe in the value harvest that comes from the investment in infrastructure and is something that is shared collectively with public and private entities,” Federal Realty Senior Vice President Patrick McMahon said. “It’s not enough to pay to put an apartment building next to a train station and charge more rents.”
Boston Properties has mixed-use developments underway at North Station and Back Bay Station. The 1.8M SF Hub on Causeway includes the construction of a new entrance to TD Garden and North Station and a weather-protected underground passageway from the station’s subway platforms to the commuter rail, which was completed last winter.
The Back Bay agreement has the developer managing daily operations at the station’s mezzanine level and providing customer service upgrades like improved restrooms, according to Boston Properties Executive Vice President Bryan Koop.
The plan calls for Boston Properties to eventually renovate Back Bay Station, upgrade retail and provide more access points as part of the mixed-use development planned to surround the facility.
Boston Properties hasn’t weighed in on North-South Rail Link, but it has signed onto a proposal East Cambridge business leaders sent to state officials after the June derailment. The group wants a direct rail link from North Station to Kendall Square using existing track running through the neighborhood as part of the Grand Junction link to Allston.
Just as transit advocates highlighted the real estate benefits from certain rail upgrades, developers see it as a two-way track.
“Transportation access is a key component in the war for talent,” Koop wrote in an email. “Throughout our portfolio, we see a focus on accessible and reliable public transit as critical to companies choosing to locate their offices in a city or region.”