Boston 2024 Olympic bid: we could – but should we? by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

olympic-ringsYesterday, the city of Rome included itself among the potential hosts for the 2024 summer Olympics.  Now, where would you rather be that August – Boston or Rome?   Italian Premier Matteo Renzi said, “it’s unacceptable not to try.”  Boston’s self-appointed elite apparently feel that way.  Today, Boston’s bid boosters are in San Francisco to persuade the United States Olympic Committee to choose Boston over  San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington.

Do we have such an inferiority complex that we need an Olympics bid to see ourselves as  a true world class city, a global player? I would suggest that we are there already, with our education, health care, innovation, life sciences and clean energy sectors.  The annual HUBweek festival planned by the Boston Globe, MIT, Harvard and that Mass. General Hospital is just one terrific low-impact way to showcase the city’s innovation, science, technology, engineering, and art.  Even if we could pull off the Olympics, it’s not clear that we should.

Years ago, the late Mayor Tom Menino got suckered into an earlier pitch to bring the Olympics here.  In the year before his death, he reversed himself, acknowledging that it would be a huge distraction.

Mayor Marty Walsh is right to espouse internationalism for the city, which can be a boon for the economy and showcase our talents and multi-ethnic diversity. He is right to have brought arts, culture, and tourism, up to cabinet-level attention. But advocating global connections doesn’t necessarily argue for bringing the Olympics here. Walsh hasn’t exactly drunk the Koolaid, but he has embraced the arguments of  heavies (many with private interests at stake) like Suffolk Construction Chief John Fish, Bob Kraft, and more, on the Boston Olympics Organizing Committee.

The Mayor says he won’t do anything that will leave Boston with a pile of debt.  He doesn’t see the bid  prep as drawing ourselves ineluctably into a whirlwind situation.  He sees us at an early stage of a multi-step process. But, if the USOC taps us, one fears the process will be hard to control.

The Committee talks about raising $4.5 billion in private financing, insuring against a public bailout of over-runs, while relying on $5 billion in public dollars for roads and infrastructure. I suspect they’re low-balling this.  According to No Boston Olympics, the average cost of the summer games is $19.2 billion.  London’s games were three times over budget.  Most host cities have emerged with huge debt, white elephant structures,  and significant regrets that other needs –  education, housing, health care, environment, and routine road and transportation projects – got shunted aside.

Irrespective of the Olympics, we do need to improve our roads and infrastructure.  Supporters claim that infrastructure improvements needed for the Olympics don’t represent new outlays but are already in the long-term plans of the Commonwealth. But how much should we cherry-pick future infrastructure projects without hurting other, more immediate needs and geographic areas untouched by the Olympics?   Should we allow the Olympics to reorder priorities for the whole state?

Just because a project is authorized in a long-term plan doesn’t mean legislators will be willing to raise taxes to pay for it.  They did not smile favorably on Governor Patrick’s transportation vision earlier this year. They routinely lack the courage to raise the gas tax to pay for desperately needed road and bridge repairs! Massachusetts was bailed out by the feds when it came to Big Dig overruns, helped by the powers of Tip O’Neill, Ted Kennedy and Joe Moakley.  Alas, that clout is no longer with us.

The organizing committee has not made public all the terms of its proposal. It would be helpful if it did. What has come out is that the universities would play a key role in providing Olympics housing. A temporary 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium would be built in South Boston, and then taken down. Would Bob Kraft then spend his own money to convert the stadium to a soccer facility for The Revolution, (with infrastructure paid for by the taxpayers)?

Neither the state legislature nor the Boston City Council has ever voted on supporting the 2024 bid.  Some of the neighborhoods that would be directly affected believe they too have been left out. But the impact of the Olympics would extend far beyond Greater Boston and for years to come.

Mayor Walsh told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last week that there have been a couple of public hearings, and there will be more if Boston is tapped as the USOC choice to compete.  Clearly there needs to be a full public review, including the opportunity to opt out.

To quote Chris Dempsey of No Boston Olympics , “We need to think big, but we also have to think smart.” Amen to that.

I welcome your comments in the section below.