“Go for the Gold” by John Edward

John Edward, who teaches economics at Bentley and UMass Lowell, frequently contributes columns on economic issues.

The Boston 2024 Summer Olympics are dead. A lot of people are disappointed. Some take it as a sign of failure.

We need to embrace the positive that can come from this. We can now focus our attention, and resources, on fixing the important problems of the day. To provide focus, I suggest we design our own “events” with 2024 as the finish line.

All 351 Massachusetts cities and towns can go for the gold. By making tangible progress on social and economic goals, communities will earn recognition for their achievements. Let the medal pursuit begin.

The Pre-K Relay

Boston Mayor Walsh has established a goal to “double the enrollment of four-year-olds in high quality, full-day pre-kindergarten programs by 2018.” The Commonwealth must be more ambitious and stop leaving children behind.

In Massachusetts, only one out of three children age 3 or 4 receive public support for early childhood education. We do not even have universal full-day kindergarten.

Studies show that pre-K programs improve academic success at all income levels. In the long run graduation rates increase, earnings increase, crime rates decrease, and drug use decreases.

Every school district should provide universal pre-K by 2024. Universal means available and affordable to all families that want to send their children to preschool. Cities and towns included in school districts that achieve that goal will earn a gold medal.

The Affordable Housing Hurdle

Chapter 40B, the Massachusetts affordable housing law, set a goal of 10% of a municipality’s existing housing units being designated as affordable. Upon achieving the goal, communities gain control of local housing development projects.

Progress under Chapter 40B has been considerable. Yet, of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, only 48 had achieved the goal by the end of 2014. Some towns, like Bedford at 16.9%, have done very well. Others, like Carlisle at 2.6%, are way behind.

Incremental progress is important, so 40B awards temporary control to towns that add 0.5% of existing units in one year. Control is important to civic leaders because it gives them the ability to make sure affordable housing units meet the needs of the community. It also allows them to avoid dense housing in neighborhoods where they do not want it.

We have a housing crisis in Massachusetts, especially regarding rental burdens. The lack of affordable housing is hurting the state’s competitiveness. Never mind getting the Olympic Games to come here, companies have trouble getting workers to come here.

The Town of Chelmsford successfully added 0.5% of units two years in a row (disclosure: I serve on the town’s Housing Advisory Board). Cities like Lowell, at 12.6%, are exempt under 40B, but can still make progress. If towns and cities add 4% of their housing units as affordable units by 2024, they will earn gold.

Distance Events

The Boston Olympic bidders started by pitching walkable Games. Then they shifted the emphasis to the infrastructure improvements that hosting the games would achieve.

While all the focus was on planning a three-week event, no one was paying attention to Go Boston 2030. Unlike the Olympic bid, Go Boston 2030 has focused on community engagement. Just as importantly, they will tackle Boston’s permanent transportation problems.

The August 1 edition of The Boston Globe reported, “State’s aging infrastructure worries businesses.” They should be worried. A report titled The Cost of Doing Nothing: The Economic Case for Transportation Investment In Massachusetts concluded: “failing to address needed transportation repairs and upgrades will cost Massachusetts between $17.7 and $26 billion by 2030, while reduced productivity and higher costs would result in the loss of as many as 15,000 jobs.”

Much of the work falls on state and federal government. However, every community can take action to improve local transportation. Cities and towns have different needs. However every community needs safe routes to school, improved walkability, bicycle and pedestrian safety, and to limit traffic congestion and especially collisions. Cities and many towns offer mass transit services (which is a factor in making them good places for affordable housing) but we need to improve and expand service.

For this event each city and town earns a gold medal by engaging the community in a planning process and then implementing the plan. It could be a transportation plan, a pedestrian and bicycle plan, or a detailed transportation section in a master plan. The plan should be completed by 2018. Communities will have until 2024 to demonstrate progress on achieving planned transportation improvements.

The Green-a-thon

The Massachusetts office of Energy and Environmental Affairs has established a “Green Communities” designation. The Green Communities Division “strives to help all 351 Massachusetts cities and towns find clean energy solutions that reduce long-term energy costs and strengthen local economies.”

To date, 136 communities have achieved the designation, including both Lowell and Chelmsford. For more information on how communities earn this gold medal see the Green Communities web site.

Debt Lifting Events

Municipalities often need to borrow money. A community’s credit rating determines their ability to borrow and the interest rate they pay. Both Lowell and Chelmsford have earned upgrades to their credit ratings in recent years, lowering their cost of borrowing. Both Chelmsford and the state of Massachusetts have earned an AA+ rating, the next to highest level.

Communities influence their credit rating by having good financial policies, maintaining liquidity (i.e., healthy reserves), keeping liabilities in check, and avoiding excessive debt. Any community that can match AA+ by 2024, or maintain an existing AA+ rating through 2024, earns the gold.

Standard and Poor’s has a top 10 list of characteristics that lead to high credit ratings. Number 10 is “A well-defined and coordinated economic development strategy.” In other words, if communities win gold medals in the other events, it will help them win this one as well, and complete a medal sweep.