Revenue to dictate difficult choices on Olympic transit projects
To hear backers of the 2024 Boston Olympics tell it, the projects necessary to pull off the event have already been approved and are ready to go: a nearly $1 billion expansion of South Station, new trains to run from the Back Bay to South Boston, an upgraded JFK/UMass Station in Dorchester. All that is needed now, they say, is a kick from the Olympics to make them a reality.
“Government always works best with a deadline, and the Games can be a deadline for getting things done,” said Daniel O’Connell, president of Boston 2024, the private group promoting the Olympic bid.
But some observers say that, even with an Olympic push, the projects could require additional public money and thwart road and rail construction outside the Boston area. Many have been talked about for years and are still in the planning stages, with legal, environmental, and financial hurdles remaining. And at the very least, they will require Governor Charlie Baker to make them a top priority and speed their progress.
“It’s up to what the administration wants to do, and the governor is limited by the revenue that they have,” said Rafael Mares, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. “The governor, as anyone in that position, will have to make serious choices because not everything can be done under the current revenue.”
To pull off the Games, backers want to build venues near existing public transit hubs. Their plans call for a removable 60,000-seat Olympic stadium near Interstate 93 in South Boston, a 16,000-person Olympic Village near the Bayside Expo Center in Dorchester, a 15,000-seat aquatics center near the Turnpike in Allston, and a removable 5,000-seat velodrome at Assembly Square in Somerville.
They say these venues will be paid for by corporate sponsorships, ticket sales, private donations, the licensing of Olympic merchandise, and broadcast fees.
But moving spectators to the venues will require upgrading or overhauling several transit lines at taxpayers’ expense — all of which Olympic planners say have already been authorized by the Legislature.
One of the biggest endeavors involves adding five to seven additional train platforms at South Station and moving the postal facility there to Fort Point Channel, at a cost of $866 million. That would allow spectators to take trains into South Station and walk to the Olympic Stadium in about 10 minutes. State officials have been trying to expand the station for a decade but have been stymied by the financially ailing Postal Service’s demand for more money for its land.
Another major public upgrade that Olympics backers want involves building a new commuter rail station, called West Station, in Allston, as part of a major $260 million project that includes straightening the Turnpike near the Allston tolls. Olympic backers plan to build a tennis pavilion and aquatics center near there using private money. Former governor Deval Patrick approved the West Station project shortly before he left office but said the state still needed one more private partner to fund the last third of the construction.
Still more projects on the Olympic to-do list involve making the JFK/UMass MBTA stop more pedestrian-friendly; running new trains — called “diesel-multiple units” — from hotels in the Back Bay to table tennis and fencing competitions at the South Boston Convention Center; building a bike path from the Olympic Village in Dorchester to the Olympic Stadium in South Boston; and redesigning Kosciuszko Circle, off Morrissey Boulevard, which funnels traffic from I-93 into Dorchester and South Boston and is notoriously nightmarish at rush hour.
Boston 2024 officials have said all the public projects were approved as part of a $13 billion bond bill that Patrick signed last April.
But that bill is more like a wish list from lawmakers, not a financing plan. It merely authorizes the state to borrow money to pay for a smorgasbord of rail, road, and bridge projects from the Berkshires to Cape Cod.
It is now up to Baker to decide which projects to undertake. Then the administration needs to borrow money to pay for the work and figure out how to cover the debt, all without breaking Baker’s pledge not to raise taxes.
“Bond bills are stuffed to the gills with wish lists and much of what’s in a bond bill doesn’t get funded,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank. “A lot of it will be based on what the state can pay for and what’s possible, and that’s not purely up to Charlie [Baker], but also about the economy.”
Mares said the state will inevitably need more money to cover the debt incurred for the transportation projects, especially after voters in November repealed a state law that would have increased the gas tax based on changes in inflation. That law would have raised about $1 billion during the next 10 years, Mares said.
“There just isn’t enough revenue to support issuing bonds for all of these projects,” he said.
Tim Buckley, a Baker spokesman, did not directly address how the projects could be financed. He said the governor is excited to work with Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Boston 2024 “to explore important infrastructure projects as well as other issues surrounding the Games such as keeping costs down and continuing to press forward on pledges of private funding.”
Stergios said it was ultimately impossible to assess how to pay for transit upgrades since Boston 2024 has refused to make available to the public the bid it submitted to the US Olympic Committee. “What is maddening thus far is the lack of information,” he said. Walsh has said the bid will be made available in coming days.