Steve Pagliuca is not happy.
It’s one thing for low poll numbers to torpedo Boston’s Olympic bid. It’s another for a bunch of outside consultants to conclude that Boston 2024’s analysis of venue construction costs was off by nearly $1 billion.
Pagliuca, an accountant by training, is himself a former consultant who helped build private equity giant Bain Capital. He crunches numbers for a living and has a lot of problems with the 183-page report issued by the Brattle Group this week.
“I didn’t go into this Olympics or bust,” said Pagliuca, who served as the chairman of Boston 2024. “If I find one thing – ‘we can’t do this’ – I am going to put up the white flag.”
He’s not about to let the Brattle Group have the last word on our Olympic bid — and neither should we.
Now this may feel like the gang at Boston 2024 trying to save face — and certainly some of that is going on. But Olympics or no Olympics, we’re going to have to think big again. The Brattle Group analyzed our Olympic dream purely through the lens of potential risks and whether taxpayers would be on the hook.
Yes, that was the assignment from Governor Charlie Baker, but that shouldn’t be the enduring lesson of our ill-fated bid.
Instead, we should remember how everyone — supporters and opponents alike — got so mired in numbers that we lost what it meant to host the Games. Mitt Romney, who helped rescue the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games from fiscal doom, warned early on in Boston’s bidding process that hosting the Olympics can’t just be about the bottom line.
“I’m sure some cities have benefited long term from hosting the Olympic Games, but I don’t think that is the primary reason for doing so,” said Romney in a 2013 Boston Globe interview. “Hosting the Olympics is about serving the world and providing service to athletes and people from almost every country. If it’s seen as a chance for Boston to serve as America’s host to the world, that can be a fantastic experience.”
Know this: Any big idea requires a leap of faith — and the confidence that a good plan will reduce the risk and that the benefits will eventually outweigh the costs. The Olympics notoriously go over their original budgets. But that’s not just an Olympic problem — that’s a problem of any megaproject.
The Brattle Group in its own report cites an academic analysis of 258 transportation infrastructure projects that found that 9 out of 10 projects exceeded initial cost estimates. The average cost overrun for rail projects was about 45 percent, while tunnel and bridge projects ran 34 percent above budget.
Imagine what would have happened if former transportation secretary Fred Salvucci focused on the price tag of the Big Dig rather than what depressing the Central Artery would do to make Boston a better place. Construction was painful — and expensive — but we got a whole new city: a third harbor tunnel, the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the Zakim bridge, and the Seaport District.
When the Brattle Group issued its report on Tuesday, Boston 2024 issued a lengthy rebuttal and is preparing an even more detailed response. The biggest point of contention is that the Cambridge consulting firm concludes that Boston 2024 significantly underestimated costs based on past Games, while Boston 2024 maintains that it simply had different plans for various venues compared to previous Olympics.
“We feel like it’s important to point out the inaccuracies – and amend as possible – because it’s bad public policy,” said Pagliuca.
In other words, the Boston bid may be dead, but the Brattle Group report will live on as a reason why US cities should run the other way if someone suggests hosting a global athletic competition in their backyard. Pagliuca’s message: Don’t be afraid.
The Brattle Group is standing by its report, which cost the state $250,000.
For the rest of us, we need to start thinking about the next big thing. And thankfully, we are.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh is looking at how to transform Widett Circle, where an Olympics stadium would have been, into the next bustling neighborhood of Boston. Governor Baker is contemplating a $1.6 billion expansion of South Station, and even former governors Michael Dukakis and Bill Weld want in on the action as they push for another Big Dig in the form of a tunnel to connect North and South stations.
Next time we can’t let the numbers blind our vision.