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Walsh presses case for 2024 Olympics bid

Strong speech cites chance to create new vision for city

Mayor Walsh, in his remarks at the Seaport Boston Hotel, sought to build a case for the Games directly on the commuter crisis.
Mayor Walsh, in his remarks at the Seaport Boston Hotel, sought to build a case for the Games directly on the commuter crisis.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File

Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Wednesday delivered his strongest and most passionate case for Boston’s pursuit of the 2024 Olympic Games, tying the bid to a pledge to overcome years of political inertia to modernize a failed public transit system, and casting the Olympic effort as a rare chance to “create the first new vision” for Boston in generations.

“Make no mistake, we are in this to win it: to bring the Olympic Games to Boston, along with the immense global investment and community benefits that come with it,” the mayor said at the annual meeting of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

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With his full-throated advocacy for seeking the Games, Walsh also seemed eager to reorient the public campaign for the Olympic bid, which has suffered from mixed messaging since the US Olympic Committee chose Boston in January to represent the nation in a global competition for the 2024 Summer Games. The local bid committee, Boston 2024, has promoted the Olympics as a catalyst for better public infrastructure while simultaneously saying the city could pull off the Games without beginning new transit projects.

Polling suggests local support for hosting the Games fell during the MBTA’s snow-induced meltdown this winter, which saw trains delayed and canceled and countless commuters inconvenienced, stranded, or forced into their cars and onto overcrowded highways to get to work. Olympics opponents insisted the T’s troubles prove the city cannot handle the event.

Walsh, in his remarks at the Seaport Boston Hotel, sought to build a case for the Games directly on the commuter crisis, something local Olympic backers were hesitant to do in the throes of the MBTA’s February failure.

“After we cleared the snow,” Walsh said, “it wasn’t just the pavement that was left exposed.” The snowiest February in Boston’s recorded history also highlighted some of the region’s greatest problems, he said, such as aging infrastructure, “poor” public transportation, and “housing insecurity” for “people on the edge.”

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“A thriving city needs a great transit system,” Walsh said. “A healthy city needs dynamic public space, diversified housing, and abundant opportunity. An innovative city is not afraid to change, grow, and take up a leadership role on the world stage.”

Walsh’s tight embrace of the bid ensures that the city’s quest for the Olympics will be “a big part of his legacy,” said Maurice T. Cunningham, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

While an Olympics bid “was not originally Mayor Walsh’s vision, it is now,” Cunningham said, in an e-mail. “He has the vision thing and is pushing it hard.”

The mayor acknowledged on Wednesday that he was originally “skeptical, even dismissive” of making an Olympic bid, but came to understand the private-financing model used to pay for the Games in the United States, and now sees the bid process as “an incredibly powerful tool.”

“The conversation so far has been more heat than light,” Walsh said, of the public debate over the Games. “There’s a lot of confusion — about what the facts are, about how the process works, and who’s driving it. I want to take the time today to make my position perfectly clear: This bid is a once-in-a-century opportunity to upgrade our infrastructure; to develop housing, commerce, and educational resources; to take new prominence on the world stage and attract transformative global investment. Ultimately, it’s an opportunity to envision and build together the next chapter in Boston’s history.”

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Walsh said Bostonians and people who work in the city have been dreaming for 50 years of a reliable and efficient transit system.

He pledged to work with lawmakers, other mayors, and Governor Charlie Baker’s administration to bring “bold investment and deep rebuilding” to the transit system.

“Those who say the MBTA’s failure is proof we can’t handle an Olympic Games have it exactly backwards,” Walsh insisted. “The T shows why an Olympic bid is such an opportunity. We need a catalyst to bring us together, keep us on track, and push solutions forward. We need a planning process with a timeline. That’s what the Olympic bid provides.”

Walsh also suggested Boston’s modest plans for the Games fulfill the International Olympic Committee’s 2014 call for a more affordable Olympics.

And should Boston 2024 lose the Olympics to another city, Boston would still benefit from more than two years of intensive planning, he said.

“Whether you oppose or support the Games, whether you are a business leader or a community activist, whether you live in Boston or work here, we can all agree that having a two-year, public conversation about the future of our great city is a good thing,” he said.

The IOC will choose the 2024 Olympics host in 2017.


Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark