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For the new mayor, no excuses

Boston’s next leader will have a once-in-a-generation opportunity. A lot of federal help is headed her way.

The Boston skyline viewed across the Charles River from Cambridge
The Boston skyline viewed across the Charles River from CambridgeDavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In addition to the city’s problems, the next mayor of Boston will be inheriting a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

If all goes well in Washington — and yes, those six words test credulity — a lot of money will be headed her way.

A lot.

Billions of federal dollars have already arrived in the state, courtesy of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) passed by Democrats this year. Many billions more will arrive if the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better budget reconciliation measure being hashed out by Democrats finally make it to the president’s desk.

A mayor could preside over monumental change if those bills come to pass. The measures advocated by Democrats at the state and federal level would fund projects so ambitious, previous mayors could only dream of them. They would cut poverty rates, make housing and child care more affordable, and expand broadband access, freeing the new mayor from some of the pressures that beset her predecessors. They would transform her city’s transportation system — perhaps even financing a fare-free public transit pilot — and fund long-overdue measures to combat climate change.

“It is a unique moment for the city,” said Pam Kocher, head of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, “a more substantial amount of resources than we’ve seen in many, many years.”

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Already, the city has been allocated $558 million in direct funding from ARPA, of which $136.5 million has been spoken for by Acting Mayor Kim Janey. The new mayor will have the remaining $400 million-plus to spend in her first term, and wide latitude on how to do so.

Boston will also reap massive benefits from the rest of the $5 billion in ARPA money the state received: Legislators are currently finalizing plans on how to spend a big chunk of that, and it looks like they will shore up affordable housing, fund worker training, and give cash bonuses to low-paid essential workers, among other worthy initiatives.

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But that windfall will pale in comparison to the good that will shower upon the city should the twin infrastructure bills currently being debated in Washington come to pass.

If that happens, it will be gorgeous, just, and long overdue. Let’s start with the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the details of which are pretty much agreed upon. This state will get about $8 billion from the bill, which passed the Senate with a 69-30 vote and is awaiting approval in the House. Aides to Senator Ed Markey said the bill would mean improvements to roads, bridges, and public transit in Boston and across the state. The city would also be able to compete for funding to make Boston more friendly to walkers and bikers, and to better protect the city’s shoreline.

What mayor wouldn’t long for all of that?

If the Democrats’ bigger budget reconciliation bill finally passes, mayors used to spending their energy and resources making up for the failings of the federal government will now have a partner in Washington when it comes to easing poverty and inequality. Among the measures still being discussed: affordable child care; universal pre-kindergarten (Promised by former mayor Marty Walsh but not delivered); and extending the child tax credit — a step that will lift many families out of hunger and desperation.

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Markey’s baby is a Civilian Climate Corps, modeled on AmeriCorps, but with better pay and opportunities: The program would employ hundreds of thousands of young people across the country, putting them to work to mitigate the effects of climate change. The legislation as written requires half of those jobs, and half of the work, to be in disadvantaged communities.

For a new mayor — especially an aspirational one — this is all a dream come true. But as a scripture-quoting Massachusetts politician once said, “Of those to whom much is given, much is required.” There is peril in a windfall. Searching eyes will be trained on City Hall, to make sure the new mayor spends the money wisely and equitably, and that whatever initiatives are born in these first flush years are sustainable long after the grants are gone.

With billions in federal investments, and groundbreaking national policies, a mayor will have nobody else to blame if her ambitions for the city aren’t realized. If she messes this up, it will be painfully obvious.

No excuses.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.