Boston 2024 Supporters Said The Olympics Would Have Fixed The T. Economists In 2019 Aren’t So Sure
As congestion grows, frustration runs high and the business community demands more funding for trains, the region is approaching the four-year anniversary of its public breakup with an event that supporters said would have fixed and changed the face of Boston’s transit map.
Boston dropped its bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics in July 2015 amid growing sentiment the city should focus more on infrastructure and less on a pricey mega-event.
Dozens of train derailments later, experts still aren’t sold the Summer Olympics would have accelerated the state of repair at the MBTA.
Supporters and organizers of mega-events like the World Cup, the Olympics and national political conventions often pitch the multi-week occasions to the public as a way to repair or expand a region’s infrastructure network. While the athletic events or political speeches are limited to a short time, legacy projects like a new subway line, a stadium or a multimillion-square-foot convention hall operate well beyond the closing ceremonies.
As increased infrastructure spending seems necessary coast to coast and has become a top issue for commercial real estate developers, it also remains highly politicized. Olympic critics begrudgingly admit the games can be a way to secure rare bipartisan political support.
“It may be the political reality, but isn’t it a sad commentary that this is the political reality?” said Lake Forest College economics professor Robert Baade, who co-authored Going For The Gold: The Economics Of The Olympics. “It really reflects a failure of our political institutions rather than an argument the games make any economic sense whatsoever.”
The United Kingdom spent $10B upgrading the London Underground ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics. Barcelona, viewed as one of the most successful Olympics host cities, used the 1992 Summer Olympics as a deadline to shed its image as an industrial, second-tier European city.
The Catalan capital built a ring road network to relieve highway congestion, extended subways and redeveloped its waterfront. It became one of the world’s most-visited cities following the Olympics.
Boston’s victory over other American cities to be the U.S. Olympic Committee’s choice for the 2024 Summer Olympics arrived in the middle of winter 2014-2015, the snowiest in city history and one that crippled the region’s subway and highway system. Transit advocates said hosting the games was the “stupidest thing possible,” but also the only way to fix the MBTA, at the time estimated to be $9B in debt and $3B behind on repairs.
The official Boston 2024 bid book promised $5B in transportation improvements, included direct rail service between Back Bay and the Seaport and "super stations" at Beacon Yards in Allston and Columbia Point in Dorchester.
Fears of cost overruns, the rise of the grassroots No Boston Olympics campaign and poll numbers showing residents wanted Boston to focus solely on items like infrastructure or housing led Boston to eventually drop its bid.
The MBTA revised its repair estimates in May, saying it will now take $10B to fix the T. That was before the June 9 Red Line derailment — the fourth MBTA train derailment in 2019 — that has the subway line running at reduced service levels while the transportation body makes repairs through the summer. The Boston transit network has the second-highest number of derailments (43) in the last five years in the U.S. after New Orleans (72).
In response, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation says it is on a record spending campaign to fix infrastructure.
“The Baker-Polito Administration is focused on investing $8B over the next five years to modernize and improve the reliability of the MBTA system and has recently announced a plan to accelerate the delivery of capital construction projects to expedite this goal,” a MassDOT spokesperson wrote in an email.
About $2B is being spent to overhaul the Red and Orange subway lines and $18.3B has been committed to a five-year capital investment plan for infrastructure across the state. The MBTA's capital improvement plan puts it on track for complete modernization within 15 years.
While the number may look good on paper, that doesn’t necessarily help those waiting longer and longer for a train or bus this summer.
The MBTA says it has enough funding, but hiring and scheduling limits how fast repairs can take place. Wouldn’t, say, an international sporting event that would have depended on the subway to shuttle spectators around the region have put more pep in the MBTA’s step?
Not necessarily, according to Baade’s co-author.
“Using the Olympics to fix the T is like saying your house is dirty and you need to clean it, so why not invite your mother-in-law for three weeks as reason to clean it,” College of the Holy Cross economic professor Victor Matheson said. “That’s a really painful way to get your house cleaned.”
Infrastructure may be touted as the legacy project to justify hosting duties, but it often gets sidelined when construction delays and overruns at other event venues require more immediate attention.
Roughly $3.5B worth of promised infrastructure projects remained unbuilt a year after Brazil hosted the World Cup. As stadium construction fell behind in Brazil, the country shifted resources away from non-urgent but important things like infrastructure to “unimportant but urgent” things like the stadiums for the actual soccer, Matheson said.
“Setting a deadline for infrastructure improvements doesn’t mean you actually meet that deadline,” he added.
The marriage of mega-events and infrastructure spending isn’t going away.
Qatar’s finance minister said in 2017 the emirate was spending $500M a week on infrastructure projects ahead of hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Twenty-Eight By '28” initiative aims to complete 28 significant transportation projects, ranging from new and expanded subway lines to highway improvements, in time for the 2028 Summer Olympics.
Bisnow reached out to Richard Davey, who served as CEO of the Boston 2024 organizing committee, for comment about whether the Olympics would have changed the region’s current infrastructure climate. He did not respond to the request.
No Boston Olympics co-founder Chris Dempsey, currently a director at Transportation for Massachusetts, declined to comment. Suffolk CEO and Chairman John Fish, a key figure in Boston’s Olympics bid, also declined to comment.
Infrastructure On An Olympics-less Track
While mega-events have undeniably pushed the infrastructure debate front and center, those interviewed for this story don’t think they are the most effective way to complete a project.
“The events do allow infrastructure to be front-page news rather than buried somewhere in the metro section [of the newspaper],” Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program fellow Adie Tomer said. “But they aren’t the right vehicle to function on those plans.”
Seeing the widespread national interest in infrastructure, Tomer is optimistic bigger projects are possible without being attached to something like an Olympics or political convention. Instead, he sees greater opportunity from the number of ballot measures getting passed by voters who want sales or property tax increases to help pay for better transit or high-capacity highway lanes.
The regional initiatives have about a 75% passage rate and have funded transportation projects in California, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and South Carolina.
Boston hasn’t come around to a ballot measure to fund more transit, but business sentiment is building to both repair and expand the MBTA network. Half of Greater Boston’s commercial transactions larger than 200K SF have occurred within seven minutes of an Orange Line station, according to Perry’s Q1 Node report on the connectivity of CRE and regional transit.
“Public transit access used to be a bullet point in marketing a big project,” Perry Director of Intelligence Brendan Carroll said. “Today, it’s a core driver.”
The Red Line remains the main transit thoroughfare for the region’s life science activity, and the June derailment stirred the business community. A group of three dozen Kendall Square business leaders sent a letter to Massachusetts officials in June calling for more transportation funding to expedite expansion and repair work on regional railways.
On a national level, the Counselors of Real Estate, an organization of 1,100 members across 50 real estate disciplines, issued its annual survey in June of top issues for commercial and residential real estate. Infrastructure topped the list.
The increased focus on infrastructure independent of a mega-event gives optimism to cost-conscious economic analysts hoping to see fixes without so many strings attached.
“The idea that you need a Sword of Damocles hanging over your head to get a project done isn’t right,” Matheson said.