Former governor Michael Dukakis has strong views on the importance of public transportation. He thinks it’s an important investment but he’s also a believer in keeping costs in check. We talk here about rail as a regional issue and national imperative, and hear his views on how should governors and legislators should be thinking about rail infrastructure, and about the importance of a connection to New York, especially for Berkshire County, as well as the East-West Rail project and the North-South Rail Link.
See below for an edited transcript of the interview.
Michael Dukakis is known as Democratic presidential candidate and long-serving governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He has served as Vice-Chair of the Amtrak Board of directors and today is a professor of political science at Northeastern and UCLA. He’s also known for his transit advocacy and for his recent efforts to promote the much-needed North-South Rail Link in Boston. He grew up and still lives in Brookline.
Note: This transcript was created using AI and then lightly edited for readability. It is time-stamped , which is useful as a guide to finding a point in the recording, but the time-stamps are not a perfect match to the podcast because we’ve added an introduction and did some editing.
We began our conversation by talking about his childhood interest in trains.
Michael Dukakis 01:44
Well, I wanted a train set when I was a kid. And those days line was the brand. And my father wouldn’t get it for me for Christmas. I was probably nine or 10. And he made the right decision, because two years later, I would have been interested in something else. In anyway, that’s when it all began. But you know, I grew up in Brookline, which had a and has always had a public transportation system for a long time. And it was just so obvious to me that the Commonwealth was in desperate need of a first class, public transportation system. And beyond that, you know, the country needs a great real system, and just got into it, and have been in it ever since. I think we made a lot of progress when I was governor. But we’re not making any progress these days.
Karen Christensen 02:38
Yes. And you’ve been in in recent years, you’ve been very much known [for your work on rail.]
Michael Dukakis 02:44
And I’m not the only one. I mean, they’re a good group of people that strongly for this. And we’ve been working hard at it, but we can’t move Baker. His Transportation Secretary is a nice person, but she’s not a builder. And so here, we said, with great opportunities, and we’re just not moving. And
Karen Christensen 03:13
We have a new president coming in soon, a new administration, who loves trains. This is certainly made me smile, many, many aspects of it. It’s made me have made me smile. How does that create opportunity and for those of us who are advocates for rail, in, in the state and in the nation, what can we best do now? I do want to talk specifically about North-South Rail Link, but perhaps some general thoughts from you on what this new administration can do for the country and for our futures?
Michael Dukakis 03:57
Well, Biden is a great advocate of this, probably as strong as anyone in the Congress. And he has been for a long time. So I’m feeling optimistic. I was blessed as governor with a Secretary of Transportation in the form of Fred Salvucci. There’s nobody better. I don’t know if you ever met Salvucci?
Well, Fred’s the son of an Italian immigrant bricklayer who came over here, and eventually created his own brick subcommittee as a subcontractor. Fred’s one of these guys who went off to MIT and got two degrees. He’s got political smarts coming out of his ears, and he’s a rare combination of extraordinary intelligence and political skill. And we worked together on this for a long time while I was governor. He also had a great talent for picking people, and picked great people. He had a terrific team, including, by the way, a director of construction and engineering who was extraordinary, an Irish kid from Dorchester who was a co-op student at Northeastern in engineering, who went to work for the team right out of right out of Northeastern. And he was extraordinary. So I was blessed with really great people. And we went to work.
Karen Christensen 05:45
What did you do? What are the accomplishments you’re most proud?
Michael Dukakis 05:48
Well, we kind of transformed the place, I mean, a whole series of things, including major infrastructure stuff, statewide, with a very heavy emphasis on rail and transit. And by the time I left the governor’s office 12 years later, we had a good transportation system, or as good a transit system as we had in the country, anywhere. I wish I could tell you that we’ve continued that progress, but we haven’t. And, you know, we’re certainly a lot better off than we were. But North-South is just one of a series of things. I mean, South Coast Rail. Southeastern Massachusetts desperately needs a rail connection to Boston, and to the world, for that matter. And it’s one of the more depressed parts of the state, which means that we could do great things for the southeastern part of the state.
We’re now talking about spending over a billion dollars on new bridges over Cape Cod canal. You know, 60 million bucks would get much improved rail transportation to the Cape all the way down Hyannis. Why are we spending a billion dollars on a highway project, which believe me, won’t solve anything?
Karen Christensen 07:17
These costs have been a big issue, the cost estimates, haven’t they with North-South Rail? And? And obviously, where should the money go?
Michael Dukakis 07:28
For one thing, they rely very heavily, very heavily on consultants. I’ve got nothing against consultants, some of my best friends are consultants. But there’s no cost consciousness there. None whatsoever. So a project which probably should be in the $2-3 billion range goes out to study to consultants. And they come back and tell us, get ready for this, it’s going to cost between $12 and $20 billion.
When I was governor, we extended the Red Line from Harvard Square to Alewife. Much of it underground. It cost $1 billion in current dollars. So what is this $12 to $20 billion? I mean, it’s hopeless. You’re not going to get anywhere with those kinds of cost estimates. So here we sit with this ridiculous one-mile gap in in our rail system between Washington and Portland, Maine.
Karen Christensen 08:45
Governor, could you explain what the north-south rail gap is to those who don’t know Massachusetts?
Michael Dukakis 08:55
It’s 1.1 miles in the middle of Boston, which is not connected by rail to the rest of the world. And it’s been that way for a long time. You know, it started way back when you had private railroads and the Boston & Maine brought you down to North Station, New Haven & Hartford up to South Station, and there was this gap. And I think there was a special commission in 1914 recommending the gap be closed. It never has been. So we got cracking on it. And Salvucci and his people were terrific. We came up with what seemed to be reasonable estimates, affordable estimates, maybe one and a half to $2 billion. We couldn’t get [Governor Charlie] Baker to move on this thing. He and [Secretary of Transportation] Stephanie Pollack decided to go out and get consultants. They came back with estimates of between $12 and $20 billion. This thing’s crazy.
Karen Christensen 10:10
So how about federal funding and federal expertise?
Michael Dukakis 10:14
We’ve had a president who is seriously mentally ill, and I’m not kidding. Trump is all talk, can’t do anything. I mean, talking about infrastructure, nothing, nothing. So my hope is that we’ll get back on track, if you’ll pardon the pun, and get going on this.
But at this point, I think we’re going to have to rely very heavily on our congressional delegation statewide. To put the kind of energy and support we need, not just for North-South, but for South Coast Rail, for the extension of rail to western Massachusetts. And for the other pieces of what is already a pretty good system. It just needs some work.
Now, I’d be interested in your own thoughts on how we deal with the Berkshires, because my sense is that while Springfield to Boston makes a lot of sense, my sense is that Berkshires would be helped most by rail in New York. And I know lots of work that’s done on this. But seems to me, that’s a much more logical connection.
Karen Christensen 11:53
Governor [Deval] Patrick, of course, was instrumental in moving us in that direction. A lot of money’s been invested already in the Housatonic Line around the Pittsfield connection. If Pittsfield were a connection to both Boston and New York, which is what we want, that would mean so much. And there’s a lot of talk about Albany, but interstate cooperation is a challenge. Everyone says, “Why just go to Pittsfield? Of course, you’d go to Albany, it’s a capitol, it’s much bigger.
Michael Dukakis 12:30
Now all these things are possible. But you got to have somebody in the governor’s office who believes in it, and is committed to it and is staffed by good people who know what they’re doing, people who get things done. Unfortunately, we don’t have that. That’s too bad, because you know, Baker’s a decent guy, I think, on the whole and wants to do good things, but we just can’t get him engaged in the rail thing.
Karen Christensen 13:00
Where our congressional delegation, they’ve been –
Michael Dukakis 13:04
They are in position now to do some great things. That’s why my sense is that if we’re going to get things done, especially with Joe Biden in the White House, it’s going to be the congressional delegation that’s going to be pushing hard. And they’re good. They’re good. I know them all. I like them. And they are well positioned to do this. And they are believers –
Karen Christensen 13:34
- in that connection, that North-South connection, it’s a hub, but it’s now an empty hole where lines come together.
Michael Dukakis 13:51
An empty hole? Yeah, that’s what we got here. It’s just disgraceful.
Karen Christensen 13:56
Because it means that someone could go from Washington to – where?
Michael Dukakis 14:05
New Brunswick, Maine.
Karen Christensen 14:07
Michael Dukakis 14:09
And there’s more here. The Canadians, especially in Eastern Canada, are very interested in being part of an effort to extend rail to Montreal. They, in fact, have had people working on this and so on zero interest from New England on this. And they believe in this. Now, when I was governor, I was one of six New England governors and we worked very closely together. I was kind of a lead guy on transportation, but all of them were interested. And we worked on a number of projects that that were important, but that’s kind of faded. And there is no lead transportation governor for the New England governors now. Our friends in Canada are very concerned about this. In fact they appointed a guy, a former, I can’t remember what his position was, but in the national Canadian government. He was designated as the guy to lead this for Canada. The response from New England? Zero.
Karen Christensen 15:23
So, we really need to make a change here, because as you know, from the point of view of citizens, this kind of connectivity is hugely important.
Michael Dukakis 15:32
No question about it. And good, relatively high-speed rail connecting Boston to Montreal, I mean, you know, what a plus that would be, but zero effort coming out of the governor’s office. Just no interest at all. My sense is that if we’re going to get moving on this stuff, with Biden in the White House, committed to rail, it’s going to be with the New England governors and the Massachusetts congressional delegation, and our senators pushing hard. Ed Markey is strongly for this. He’s a very good guy. I’ve known him for years, he wants to move on it, and Elizabeth Warren I think would be fine. And then you’ve got, as you know, key congressional folks, Richie Neal for onc. Jim McGovern for another. And Seth Moulton, who’s a big rail guy.
Karen Christensen 16:40
Yes, indeed, I’m talking to all of them.
Michael Dukakis 16:43
We’ve got great people.
Karen Christensen 16:46
So what can what would you advise either train advocates or just regular citizens who say, I want to be able to get to Boston, I want to be able to get to New York, I want to get to Montreal or Albany by train.
Michael Dukakis 17:01
That’s important. But it’s going to take some strong political leadership. And I think, given what we’re facing in the governor’s office, I think that means a congressional delegation that’s strong and well positioned. And it goes to work on this. I mean, I’ve already been in touch with Seth. Jim McGovern is an old friend, Richie Neal, obviously, is in a position to do great things for the state as well as western Massachusetts. So my hope and expectation is that we can we can pull a congressional and senatorial delegation together and go to work, and kind of force Charlie [Baker] to get serious about this. I mean, it’s just so ludicrous. You know, imagine a one-mile hole in the middle of the northeast corner.
Karen Christensen 17:58
Well, your work on this, your voice on this is very much appreciated.
Michael Dukakis 18:06
Likewise. You’re nice to say that, but, you know, we need some action here. And not another consultant. God help us. I’m sure you’ve taken a look at the latest consultant work on the extension of rail to the west.
Karen Christensen 18:22
Indeed. Yes. What are your thoughts on that?
Michael Dukakis 18:25
$3 billion, are they serious? $3 billion. Be what would it cost to modernize rail? Just for starters, from Worcester to Springfield?
Karen Christensen 18:40
Because there’s a train that runs on that line every day.
Michael Dukakis 18:47
What are we talking, $15 million, maybe, to modernize that to Springfield? Now, over the mountains will be a little more difficult. But please don’t tell me it’s going to cost $3 billion. Who are these consultants that they’re hiring? What are they doing and saying? It’s just ridiculous. And in the meantime, you know, the Berkshires ought to be working on what is not a very expensive update and upgrade in rail from the Berkshires to New York. Also very important. As you know that. And all of this is possible with a national administration that wants to you get moving, but you’ve also got to have a state administration and state leadership that wants to get going.
Karen Christensen 19:42
I think you’ve really summed it up. All of all of this is possible, when you talk about people being builders – we clearly need builders!
Michael Dukakis 19:51
Yes. Builders and doers. And by the way, as you know, we’re not talking about difficult projects. The rail is there. All you got to do is upgrade. We’re not talking about elaborate environmental studies and this kind of stuff. We’re talking about taking existing rail and modernizing it.
Karen Christensen 20:15
That’s why it’s been great to see the work being done on the Housatonic Line by the Department of Transportation, because Governor Patrick made that commitment. It’s being done right now. And they’re upgrading it to a standard that can take a passenger train. Right now. It’s not that complicated.
Michael Dukakis 20:37
It’s not complicated at all. And this is the time to do it, people to work, get back on track, come out of this pandemic with a burst of energy, and get going on this stuff. And when you think about it, I mean, the fact of the matter is that we’re not talking about a huge project here. We’re talking about bits and pieces of what should and must be a first class regional rail system. Which by the way would include our New England neighbors. Many of whom are very interested in proceeding with us.
Karen Christensen 21:17
Michael Dukakis 21:19
Well, it’s there. I mean, you’re not talking about, you know, massive expenses, going into communities and places that are destructive in any way. I mean, it’s just taking the rail that’s been around since the 19th century and modernizing it.
Karen Christensen 21:42
We are so grateful to you for your continued efforts.
Michael Dukakis 21:48
I’m here to do whatever I can. But let’s see if we can the administration and get cracking on some of this stuff, with a congressional delegation which wants to do it.
Karen Christensen 22:01
That’s our aim. We appreciate everything you’re doing and we’ll stay in touch. Let’s make it happen.
Michael Dukakis 22:08
I appreciate everything you’re doing, and stay in touch. Let’s see if we get a head of steam up here and get going on this. We’re not going to solve our transportation problems in this state or region without a first class regional rail system.