Olympic Opportunity? — Region Gains Only If We Demand the Benefits First

The best and perhaps only argument for holding the 2024 Summer Olympics in Boston (and Cambridge) is that the deadlines and international media scrutiny will force us – meaning city, state, and federal governments as well as local universities – to make the infrastructure investments that we already know are needed but that are unlikely to occur given current budget pressures. The promise is that most of the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on a “car-free” Olympics will be used for upgraded public transportation and walking/bicycling facilities, for expanded student dormitories around local colleges and family-sized affordable housing, and general landscape improvements.

What if it could be so? (Full disclosure: I’d like to have one of the promised improvements be the Greenway Links project – a seamless network of walking and bicycling corridors for recreation and travel by people of all ages and abilities – that I’ve been working on for the past few years.)

FISCAL BLACK HOLE

Unfortunately, there are a lot more believable anti-Olympics arguments. Despite Mayor Walsh’s scheduling of a series of public meetings, the arrogant and secretive process so far by an elite group of self-interested corporate giants makes it hard to believe either that we’ll get to know everything they’ve got up their sleeves or that they will incorporate any but the most superficial public input suggestions.

Mayor Walsh says that taxpayer money will not pay for building sports venues; the booster committee says it won’t be used for Olympic operating costs. Still, almost no one believes the announced public sector cost of $4.4 billion, and much will go to the many tens of millions of dollars needed for non-construction costs. According to sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, recent Olympics have only generated $5-6 billion in direct revenue, half of which must be turned over to the notoriously corrupt International Olympic Committee. The Boston Herald revealed that the insurance policy for cost overruns taken out by the private-sector promoters actually cover only the first $25 million, and only under conditions of breach of contract. And, based on experience in other host cities, the bump in tourism caused by the 3 week festival will generate relatively little additional indirect revenue through hospitality taxes.

We should also learn from the Big Dig. Many of the promised “public benefits” were pushed aside as the “main event” deadlines approached and cost over-runs emptied budgets. Isn’t it reasonable to worry that the same thing will happen with the rush to meet Olympic deadlines? And even in the best of cases, isn’t it likely that the projects won’t be available for public use (especially the housing) until after the Olympics are over nearly a decade from now?

CONSTITUTIONAL NIGHTMARE

In addition to fiscal and traffic overloads, the two most powerful anti-Olympics arguments are the enormous opportunity costs of having our public leaders having to focus so much time and energy on this short-lived event and the enormous undermining of civil liberties that will have to occur to protect this obvious terrorism target.

Mayor Walsh has said, ““This is not going to take over my first term as mayor. I am not mayor just to bring an Olympics to Boston. I am mayor to improve the city.” But resisting Olympic pressure will be nearly impossible. Cambridge blogger, Saul Tannenbaum, says the Olympic Committee “has just hijacked our civic agenda for the next decade…” Globe columnist Andrew Ryan quotes a former Olympian who has written two books about the games: “Schools could well get sidelined. If I was in Boston, I would be very concerned about that.

Even more scary: the state ACLU points out that the Olympics will certainly be considered as a “National Security Special Event….[putting it] under the authority of the US Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, and Federal Bureau of Investigation…All people within the NSSE ‘security’ zone – possibly the entire Boston metro area and beyond – could lose a host of constitutional rights, including the right to protest on public land, and the right to not be searched or questioned absent any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing…Boston will likely receive substantial federal funding to expand its already unaccountable and secretive surveillance apparatus. Moreover, history suggests that the people targeted by the permanent surveillance regime won’t be elite athletes or business leaders; it will be poor peoplecommunities of color and political activists. Before hosting the games in 1996, Atlanta officials arrested more than 9,000 people – most of them black.” And Tannenbaum adds: “surveillance cameras [will] be installed, along with face recognition, biometrics, and whatever happens to be state-of-the-art in a decade. And they won’t be uninstalled when the Olympics leaves town, they’ll become the new normal.”

BENEFITS FIRST

Notwithstanding the strong anti- arguments, the sad but painful truth is that it will probably take something like an approaching Olympics to get this region to face up to the need for massive infrastructure improvements.

The International Olympic Committee won’t make a final decision about a 2024 location until sometime in 2017. The Olympic Committee says that all the needed improvements have already been recognized as needed by appropriate public bodies. They’re right – without significant public investments our region will be unable to meet the challenges of the coming economically uncertain and environmentally difficult era.

So what if we – the citizens of this region – demanded that Olympic organizers and supportive public leaders back up their promises of eventual benefit by spending the next two years finishing plans and issuing contracts for the needed infrastructure and housing? Yes, the actual construction will take longer than two years, but what if the process was pushed far enough that we could be sure it would actually occur? What if we, the people who live here, get to see and enjoy the benefits of all these expensive projects during at least part of the coming decade and the Olympics were just a by-product of our own well-being? What if the city and state promised to not spend a penny on sports venues until the local infrastructure work was done?

This doesn’t solve the opportunity cost issue, although spending leadership time on infrastructure isn’t a bad thing.  And yes, this might actually cost the Olympic Committee’s private donors (but not the taxpayers) more since the buildings would have to be retrofitted for Olympic use and then again for public use, although the kind of innovative design that Mayor Walsh has been calling for might minimize those costs. But the benefit might be worth that extra cost.

Perhaps this is just a silly fantasy prompted by my years of transportation advocacy and my interest in the Greenway Links and regional Land Line projects. The state has a budget deficiet of up to a billion dollars.   Charlie Baker’s party now controls the Congress and may take the White House two years from now, at just about the time when economists expect the slowing world economy to undermine domestic growth – which increases his chances of attracting infrastructure funds (assuming that anti-government fantatics don’t demand more tax cuts instead and really push us into a depression).

But if Olympic leaders adopted this benefits-first strategy then we might gain the benefits of both the pro and anti-arguments – we’d get what everyone agrees that we need and, in 2017, the International Olympic Committee would award the games to Barcelona. I love Spain.