Olympics Bid: Minds remain open, but off to a shaky start

Boston’s bid to secure the 2024 summer Olympic games won the US committee’s nod last Thursday— a significant victory for proponents of the idea, most notably Mayor Martin Walsh, who has become the most prominent public face of the effort. Walsh trumpeted the news in his first State of the City address on Monday.

“Our vision of a 21st-century, affordable, sustainable games went up against our nation’s greatest cities, and we won,” Walsh said to loud applause inside Symphony Hall. “Whatever the outcome, Boston will prove itself a global leader. The whole world will soon know what we have always known: Boston is exceptional.”

The mayor then underlined his earlier promise to “hold transparent conversations on every impact in every neighborhood.” That process, ostensibly, begins next week with a public event at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC)— and will then turn to a series of nine public meetings, including one in Dorchester and another in Mattapan.

After leaving his first official cabinet meeting last week, newly sworn-in Governor Charlie Baker fairly summed up our posture towards the Olympics when he told reporters: “I’m where I think many people are which is there’s a lot to learn about this.”

Reasonable people can and should wait to get a more complete picture of what the proponents of this bid have to say before picking a side on this debate— which has just begun in earnest.

Still, there is reason for some early concern, especially here in Dorchester. The old Bayside Expo property— now controlled by UMass Boston, would likely be home to the massive Olympic Village, according to Boston 2024 executives. In the void of more timely disclosures from the advocates, however, there is already a sense that some key facts about the public costs of this endeavor are being misstated.

A Boston Globe article published last Saturday reported that Boston 2024 officials have argued that several costly public transit enhancements — projects that would be paid for by Massachusetts taxpayers— are already accounted for in a 2014 transportation bond bill passed into law. The Globe piece specifically cited a major renovation to the JFK-UMass station and a revamp of the already badly congested Kosziuscko Circle as examples of projects that would be funded through that borrowing law.

But, there is no specific mention of either of these projects in the $12.7 billion bond bill, a document that meticulously details— line-item by line-item— where those dollars would be spent. This week, the MBTA told the Reporter that it has no existing plan for renovating or enlarging JFK-UMass station. And, despite repeated requests for information to the state’s Department of Transportation (MassDOT), no one there could say what— if any— plans exist for changing Kosziuscko Circle. In fact, there is no indication that a study of traffic conditions at Kosziuscko Circle— authorized by another bond bill in 2007— has even been conducted yet.

It’s fine for proponents to make the case that these projects should be undertaken and that it will be in the public interest to spend our tax dollars this way. If the Olympic Village is sited on Columbia Point, there is no doubt that they will have to be done.

But it is disingenuous — at best— to suggest that these state-funded projects are already budgeted for or in the pipeline. They are not.

What we do know about the state’s budget woes — particularly on the transportation front— makes such fuzzy math even more objectionable. The new governor— and his legislative counterparts — say that the state’s budget could be as much as a half a billion dollars out of whack. And, since voters last November decided to repeal a provision that tied the gas tax to inflation, there will be even less money available in coming months and years to fund capital improvements.

This misstep points to the larger problem of the current phase of the Olympics push and threatens to undermine their credibility right out of the gate. The proponents have — to date— not disclosed the full presentation that was made to the US Olympics Committee in November. They should do so immediately to aid in a fuller understanding of precisely what has been promised— and what has not— in pitching our city’s interest in hosting this international event.

If Mayor Walsh and his allies on the Boston 2024 Committee want us to buy-in to their vision, they are going to have to step up their game when it comes to presenting the facts around the public costs associated with this mammoth undertaking.

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