For an organization that believes in the transformative power of the Olympics, Boston 2024 is sending an oddly defensive message. To assuage fears of a budget-busting Sochi II, local organizers keep saying the Boston effort will need minimal public investment. But this vow isn’t getting them any credit. In a recent poll, support for the 2024 bid slipped to 36 percent, with only 29 percent of Boston area residents saying private money will suffice.
For diehard skeptics, any public spending in concert with an Olympics is a red flag. But some types of investments lead to long-term benefits: London used the 2012 Games to overhaul its transportation system and prepare vast areas for redevelopment, and the local and national governments spent accordingly.
In Boston, though, the promise of minimal public investment — a promise hardly anyone believes — has shrunk the potential upside of the Games and, paradoxically, made the whole idea harder to sell.
By proposing a referendum next year, Boston 2024 bought itself time to adjust proposed venue sites, such as beach volleyball courts on the Common, that went over badly with neighbors. But the private organizing group also needs to show more clearly how the Games would improve the city — and account for the inevitable costs of making those upgrades.
A key argument for a Boston Olympics was the push it would give to repairing the creaky MBTA. But Boston 2024 has tamped down such expectations. In February, CEO Rich Davey told WBUR that, beyond a handful of projects already under way, no new infrastructure is needed. But the Games should leave behind something more substantial than new Red and Orange line cars that the MBTA already planned to buy.
In London, “the premise wasn’t, ‘How do we minimize all of our costs and have the leanest games?,’ ” says Andrew Altman, a veteran planner in Philadelphia and Washington whom London tapped to oversee the post-2012 afterlife of its Olympic sites. The overarching goal was to steer growth to East London by improving the Underground, redoing Victorian-era sewers, and cleaning up brownfields.
Similar aspirations are implicit in the “clusters” Boston 2024 foresees in Allston, Columbia Point, and Widett Circle — which could later become the residential and commercial growth zones that Boston badly needs. Yet a major buildout in Allston would require the self-powered train cars that the MBTA hopes to deploy on existing commuter lines but doesn’t yet have.
Meanwhile, one of the best ideas in the original bid book, an “Olympic Boulevard” linking Widett Circle to the waterfront, suffers if the state can’t buy the US Postal Service plant near South Station and the city can’t reopen a now-closed part of Dorchester Avenue. The Widett Circle area contains critical bus and rail facilities that will have to be moved or creatively reconceived at great expense to, well, someone.
If Boston 2024 can help jar loose more transportation revenue, that’s terrific. One key supporter, Mayor Marty Walsh, told the Dorchester Reporter Thursday that Olympics-related transportation upgrades would require new taxpayer dollars. Regardless, downplaying the costs to the public doesn’t mean there won’t be any; it just means no one is budgeting for them. “It’s a charade that we play with each other,” says Harvard urban design professor Alex Krieger.
Voters sense this. They’re also beginning to glimpse other negatives that come with mega-projects, including the murky politics and the hiring of insiders as lobbyists and community liaisons. The compensating public benefits are far less visible.
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the US Olympic Committee has consulted with Los Angeles and San Francisco about contingency plans if the Boston effort collapses. But the committee, whose secretive application process made it tough for cities to build support for their plans in advance, should give Boston organizers a chance to win over doubters.
For the Olympics’ most ardent supporters, inviting the rest of the world to Boston would be uplifting on its own terms. For everyone else, the permanent public legacy an Olympics could leave is the main reason to host one. There’s no benefit in stripping the Games down so far that they leave no legacy at all.