As the clock approached 7:00 on May 23rd, organizers knew that the North-South Rail Link Town Hall Meeting in Lowell would have to start a few minutes late.
Governor Dukakis was stuck in traffic.
Of course traffic delays are nothing unusual in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts these days–The average daily speed of the Southeast Expressway at 5:00 is about 11 mph–but Michael Dukakis and several other transportation and planning experts have a solution in mind to help alleviate that problem–finally building the North-South Rail Link.
The North-South Rail Link (NSRL) is a proposed 1.5-mile long tunnel connecting North and South Stations in Boston that advocates say would allow for more efficient commuter rail service through a truly regional system throughout the Northeast. The link would also alleviate highway congestion, decrease vehicle carbon emissions, and boost economic development in both the Boston urban core and the surrounding communities, including Gateway Cities such as Lowell. In the case of highway congestion, it is estimated that the NSRL would take 55,000 cars off the road on a daily basis.
The governor’s arrival shortly after 7:00 initiated a spirited and engaging program focused on the rail link but also discussing public transportation in the Commonwealth more broadly. Mayor William Samaras served as the host for the evening. The mayor noted some of the potential benefits of the link for Lowell including direct service to the south shore and better connections for regional Amtrak travel. Investment and improvement in the commuter rail system might eventually yield to an northbound extension of Lowell’s existing rail infrastructure into New Hampshire and even points as far north as Montreal.
“It’s not just a Boston project—it is something that would present opportunities here in Lowell and that’s why I’m very eager to hear more about it tonight,” said the mayor.
Mayor Samaras introduced City Manager Eileen Donoghue. Manager Donoghue spoke of her time as a member of the NSRL coalition while she was in the Massachusetts State Senate. “This is important to Lowell”
The mayor then introduced former Governor Dukakis. The two had met on several occasions recently during Greek independence day celebrations in the Boston area. Beyond their shared Greek heritage, they also have in common a deep love for education. Mayor Samaras of course served as the headmaster of Lowell High School for 19 years, while Governor Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee for President, is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, and a visiting professor at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA.
The Mayor described his deep admiration for the lifetime of service that Governor Dukakis has given, “If I try to emulate anyone in public service, it truly is you.”
Dukakis spoke of his deep roots in the City of Lowell. “I love this city. It means a great great deal to me.”
After immigrating from a predominately Greek town in Asia Minor, his father, Panos Dukakis settled in Lowell in 1912 where two of his brothers were working in the mills. The former governor reminisced about regularly visiting relatives in the city including cousins on Humphrey St in Christian Hill. Dukakis’s mother’s family settled in Haverhill–another mill city in the region which would stand to benefit from the NSRL.
“Lowell and Haverhill. Those were our two anchors,” Dukakis said.
Dukakis’s ties to the postindustrial cities of the commonwealth played out during his governorship where the revitalization of those cities was a key element of his platform. Governor Dukakis was in office when Lowell Heritage State Park, a precursor to Lowell National Historical Park, was established. To say the former governor is proud of the city would be an understatement. “When I ran for the presidency, people all over the country heard all about Lowell.”
But key to the modern day economic empowerment is a 21st century transit system. “The only way we are going to build the kind of economy and life for our people that we want is to build and improve a first class regional rail system that connects every single Gateway City by rail.”
A tunnel connecting Boston’s North and South stations is not a new idea, in fact it was a key component of the original Central Artery/Big Dig proposal before President Ronald Reagan vetoed the plan. The Big Dig was ultimately saved though a congressional override but the rail link had to be sacrificed in order to secure the funding for the project.
Attempts to revive the rail link have been made several times over the interceding decades to no avail, but advocates sense a real opportunity now–although it won’t be easy.
The Town Hall meeting included four panelists who each spoke of the importance of the rail link from a distinct angle.
John Kyper the co-chair of the transportation subcommittee for the Sierra Club of Massachusetts noted the positive environmental impact that the NSRL and a regional rail system could provide.
UMass Lowell Campus Planning & Development Director and former assistant city manager, Adam Baacke discussed the project through a number of lenses. First he recounted his experience doing the “reverse commute” from Dorchester to Lowell early in his career with the city and how the rail link would have made train travel a more viable option. He also discussed the project from both the city’s perspective and that of UMass Lowell, noting that improved transit options make it easier for UML alumni to stay in the area after they graduate.
Former Lowell Planning Board member, Joseph Boyle recounted the importance of including the North South Rail Link and rail travel in the city’s master plan.
Finally offering the “millennial” perspective, Marc Ebuña of TransitMatters emphasized that the rail link is the first step in what needs to be a diligent investment in modern transportation infrastructure in the Commonwealth and a thorough rethinking of the transit system as a whole.
The floor was then opened up to a question & answer session with members of the audience. Numerous out of town attendees at the Lowell Town Hall spoke about their own difficulty reaching the city by public transit, which requires an additional two subway transfers to get from the southern part of the commuter rail system to the Lowell line out of North Station. NSRL advocates envision a system in which all points of the existing commuter rail system would be accessible on a single seat ride–or one transfer at most.
The Lowell Town Hall was the seventh in a series hosted by the Citizens for a North-South Rail Link throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the first in the Merrimack Valley region. The event drew a standing room only crowd in the Mayor’s Reception Room and several elected officials and candidates for public office were in attendance including City Councilors Edward Kennedy and Karen Cirillo.
Among the former elected officials in attendance was a good friend of Michael Dukakis from his political days. Armand LeMay was in his second year as the mayor of the City of Lowell when Dukakis was sworn in for his first term as governor of the Commonwealth in 1975.
The two political veterans shared stories and quite a few laughs, particularly when the former governor spotted the former mayor’s portrait next to the City Hall elevator.
Although all in attendance agreed that there is still a long political road ahead, the NSRL Lowell Town Hall was viewed as another step towards bringing awareness and support to the project that could have transformative implications on the entire region. Those interested in learning more about the project should visit www.northsouthraillink.org