Planned Olympic transit projects pose funding challenge
Despite early pitch, many public projects don’t have full funds in place
Boston Olympic organizers initially pitched the Games by declaring that they would boost an array of public transit improvements, including a $1 billion expansion of South Station, new diesel trains between the Back Bay and Newton, and an upgraded JFK/UMass Station in Dorchester.
Best of all, Olympic organizers said, the projects had already been approved in a $13 billion bond bill signed by Governor Deval Patrick last year. "That money has already been allocated," John Fish, the chairman of Boston 2024, said last year.
But despite those statements, not all of the projects have been fully funded and others were not even included in the bond bill. In fact, if the state were to pursue all of the projects, taxpayers would have to kick in at least another $4 billion, according to a Globe review.
"The information that is being provided at this stage should be accurate," said Rafael Mares, a lawyer at the Conservation Law Foundation, "and, unfortunately, it isn't."
A Boston 2024 official acknowledged in a statement Monday that there has been "some confusion relative to the transportation improvements we need and where they are in the pipeline."
Senior vice president Erin Murphy said some projects have been funded, some have not, but "the bottom line is the only transportation improvements that we are looking for are ones that would benefit the city of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with or without the Games."
Murphy's statement reflected an evolution in Boston 2024's message that has emerged in recent weeks. As its list of projects has come under increased scrutiny, the group has moved away from talk of specific projects and their costs and toward a broader promise that the Olympics can serve as an important planning exercise.
"You can only motivate people with crisis or opportunity when it comes to transportation, and the T has had a number of crisis moments. It's having one now," said Richard A. Davey, chief executive of Boston 2024 and a former state transportation secretary. "And that's an unfortunate way to manage and govern. I think the Olympics are an opportunity — an opportunity for us to think big and dream big. What do we want the city to look like, and the region to look like, in 2030?"
The only project Davey said would actually be needed to host the Games is a shipment of new Orange and Red Line cars for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. That shipment, though tied up in litigation brought by the losing contractors, has already been paid for and is slated to start arriving in 2018.
The other projects initially promoted by Boston 2024 such as the South Station makeover and $2.3 billion South Coast rail extension would enhance the Olympics but would not be required to host them, Davey said.
"We're not saying to the public, 'In order to get these Games, you must do this, and this, and this,' " he said. "That must-do list is already done."
In the bid documents that Boston 2024 used to win the United States Olympic Committee's blessing in January, however, the organizers listed wide-ranging projects that Massachusetts had committed to in its five-year capital plan.
Chief among those, the documents said, were the expansion of South Station, which involves adding five to seven additional train platforms and relocating the postal facility there; the extension of the commuter rail to New Bedford and Fall River; a new commuter rail station in Allston, called West Station; new trains — called "diesel multiple units" — to run from Newton to the South Boston waterfront, site of the proposed Olympic stadium, on existing rail lines; the extension of Silver Line bus service to Chelsea; statewide commuter rail enhancements; a new Massachusetts Turnpike interchange at the Allston tolls; all-electronic tolling on the Pike; and accelerated bridge repairs statewide.
The bid documents noted that some projects were not fully funded but did not detail the outstanding costs.
A Globe review of the state's official capital plan found that the South Station expansion, which would cost about $1 billion, has received only about $245 million so far. South Coast rail, which would cost about $2.3 billion, has received only $325 million from the state, according to the capital plan.
The state has funded a $190 million project to run diesel multiple units on the Fairmount branch of the commuter rail from South Station to Hyde Park but has not allocated money for the remaining $110 million that Boston 2024 says would be needed to extend the service into Newton. And while Boston 2024 says $140 million would be needed to upgrade the T's JFK/UMass Station in Dorchester, the state has not allocated money for that project.
In addition, several of the projects — such as the JFK/
UMass Station upgrade — were not included in the bond bill. Even if they had been, 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 would then be up to Governor Charlie Baker's administration to decide which projects to fund.
Davey said the state does not need to set aside all the money now.
For major projects such as South Coast rail and South Station expansion, the relatively small amounts the state has budgeted are sufficient to launch the early planning and permitting phases, he said. Heavier spending, he said, would be needed later, when actual construction begins.
"I will admit this and continue to admit this: It's up to this administration to prioritize projects," he said. "There's no doubt about that. But to say there's a potential large gap, I would disagree with."