fb-pixelBetter T service or bigger convention center? Can we have both? - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Shirley Leung

Better T service or bigger convention center? Can we have both?

Officials have proposed a $1 billion expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.matthew j. lee/globe staff/File 2012

Charlie Baker is playing hardball with his proposed budget, telling the Legislature to pick either tax breaks for Hollywood stars or working families.

It’s a political plot line that could have come straight out of an Aaron Sorkin script.

Our Republican governor may have another fiscal twist up his sleeve: Spend $1 billion on the convention center or use that money to fix the MBTA. It’s an idea that has been bouncing around town, one that convention center honcho Jim Rooney wishes would go away.

I can see why. Rooney may have spent five years artfully pushing through a bill to expand the Southie center, but Baker holds the cards on this one.


The Legislature has authorized the bonds for expansion, but the governor needs to sign off on them.

Candidate Baker was lukewarm on a bigger convention hall, and Governor Baker is no different. When he got into office in January, one of his first pieces of business was to order a delay of the $1 billion bond offering for the convention center as part of a budget review.

Rooney doesn’t like all the chatter about tough choices.

“You are making a panic decision to cut one foot off,” he said.

So do legislators still want to expand the convention center? And if presented with the choice of catering to visitors on fat expense accounts or giving the locals a better MBTA, which would they support?

I reached out to a dozen legislators holding key posts and got responses from half of them. Only one, Stan Rosenberg, gave me something that resembled a real answer. The Senate president wouldn’t get on the phone, but I know where he stands after he released this statement:

“I believe in this case there are opportunities to invest in both the MBTA and expanding the convention center. When it comes to prioritizing our investments, however, the recent winter has highlighted the immediate needs of upgrading our public transit system. Residents and local businesses deserve a reliable MBTA to conduct business, get to work and school, and enjoy restaurants and entertainment venues.”


Now this is saying something, coming from someone who hails from T-hating Western Massachusetts.

Legislators say Governor Charlie Baker doesn’t need to make it an either-or case when it comes to funding for a convention center expansion and revitalizing the MBTA.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

As for the others, know this much about our Beacon Hill politicians: Back them into a corner and they come back swinging like Rocky.

“I hope he’s not stupid enough to say either-or,” House Majority Leader Ron Mariano said of the possibility that Baker will fund the T instead of the convention center. “It’s crazy. One has nothing to do with the other.”

Karen Spilka, Senate Ways and Means chairwoman, also scoffed at the concept, saying, “I don’t think this is a Sophie’s choice.”

Bill Straus, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, chuckled about the potential maneuver. “It has been a useful public strategy. As you can see with the discussions with the film tax credit, it’s not necessarily how the Legislature views the dynamic,” he said.

The MBTA’s Orient Heights maintenance facility in East Boston could benefit from a boost in state funding.John Blanding/Globe Staff/File

What Straus is referring to is how legislators, including House Speaker Bob DeLeo, have come out defending the controversial film tax credit, which lures Hollywood studios to make movies in Massachusetts. They argue that, like the earned income tax credit, the film incentive creates jobs and boosts the economy for working families.

Mariano, Spilka, and Straus all voted for the convention center expansion, and all say the Commonwealth should still proceed. Details are scant about how the administration could put the needs of the T before the convention center.


One thing’s for sure: Baker can’t just issue $1 billion of convention center bonds and decide to use that to upgrade the commuter rail. What the governor will need is new legislation to fund the MBTA.

Representative Antonio Cabral, chairman of the House committee that oversees bond bills and capital projects, thinks we don’t have to pick between the hospitality industry and commuters. He said the hotel taxes and other visitor fees that fund the convention center generate enough money each year to throw off a little extra toward transit.

It would require legislation, but the convention center fund could be redesigned to help pay for the T.

It won’t solve all of its problems, but it’s a way to have more tourists and trains.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.