The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boston may need the Olympics to fix its problems, which is bad news for all of us

The Boston skyline, courtesy of Flickr user <a href="">James</a> , under a Creative Commons license.

BOSTON — The 100-year-old subway system here is creaking with age, in need of new cars, functional air conditioning and more reliable service. Battered by snowstorms, the entire "T" was paralyzed this week. The commuter rail station downtown needs an expansion, too. And housing — there this city is busting at the seams, in need of tens of thousands of new units to accommodate both new arrivals and priced-out working-class residents.

Enter, amid all of these challenges, the prospect of an Olympic Games. Last month, Boston was chosen by the U.S. Olympic Committee over Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles to make the country's bid for the 2024 Summer Games. Now as the possibility that Boston might actual win them starts to sink in, the city is facing a massive debate about what those Games could mean for all of its problems.

Opponents say the city can ill-afford the all-consuming distraction of playing Olympic host when Boston can quite literally not keep the subway trains running on time. The Games' backers, meanwhile, counter that the one thing that could rally the city to right its infrastructure is a deadline like no other.

"This conversation causes us to put a circle around the calendar, to say 'by this date certain, we have to have certain things done,'" John Fish, the chair of the group putting together the bid, told an overflow crowd last week at the city's first public meeting on the Games.

If he is right — that the city's best bet to tackle its biggest challenges lies in making this commitment to the world — that raises an awkward question for the rest of us: At a time when the United States can get seemingly so little built, when a majority of Americans oppose even a modest increase in the gas tax to fund basic infrastructure, when trust in government to accomplish anything is so low, do American cities need to take on an Olympic Games just to get big things done?

Never mind the old debate over whether the Olympics are ever worth the economic cost to a city. This question, which turns on our political and collective inability to invest in cities when the Olympics aren't even in the picture, is far scarier. If Boston needs the Games to make sure the subway is fixed and the rail terminal is expanded and all of that housing is built, the rest of us are in trouble.

"What happens when we wake up in 2025? Now what?" asks Chris Dempsey, one of the co-chairs of No Boston Olympics, the primary organization in the region for people who want, well, no Boston Olympics. "Now we’ve convinced ourselves we can only do things with mega-events."

At the public meeting last week, No Boston Olympics distributed black-and-white signs implying the zero-sum trade-off it fears the Games would bring:

"Better schools, no Olympic Games"

"Better housing, no Olympic Games"

"Better transit, no Olympic Games"

The room where the meeting was held, at Suffolk University Law School, was packed well beyond capacity. Residents spilled out of the door and into an overflow room. They gave out an audible gasp at the mention of beach volleyball on the Boston Common. At Q&A time, most of their queries were skeptical.

"I love the Olympics, and I love the city of Boston," one man offered. "But not together. My question is: What would it take to stop this?"

"Why do we have to wait 10 years for changes?" another man begged. "For changes that we need to make now?"

Rich Davey, a former Massachusetts state secretary of transportation who was recently named the chief executive of Boston 2024, counters that better transit and an Olympic Games aren't mutually exclusive.

"If government is incapable of doing more than one thing at a time, forget about the Olympics," he says. "I think we’re all in trouble as a general matter."

But he's also surprisingly blunt about the ability of government to accomplish some of these goals under normal circumstances, like improving the city's "threadbare" transit.

"We feel like the Olympics gives government — with all due respect, because I was there for four years — a deadline," he says. "There’s nothing like a deadline for your kid’s fourth-grade homework. And there’s nothing like a deadline to get government to build big projects."

Davey and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh have insisted that they only want the Games to come to Boston if that goal aligns with the city's own future development. It's easy, though, to envision that while the interests of Boston and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may align in the abstract today, they could diverge as the Games grow nearer.

Dempsey worries in particular that as the deadline for the Olympics approaches in any city, civic projects inevitably fall by the wayside for Olympic priorities. IOC officials in Brazil, he says, aren't there to check up on the progress of new public parks or transit investments that were promised to residents. They want to make sure the stadium has enough seating by the Opening Ceremonies.

The IOC approved in December a suite of reforms designed to make the Games less of a burden on host cities, following years of an arms race that has left cities in debt and saddled with infrastructure they don't ultimately reuse (and left other cities skittish about bidding for them). But critics in Boston don't trust those reforms, and they won't trust any contract that requires the city to bear financial liability for any cost overruns.

No Boston Olympics, as well as several other camps at the city and state level, are willing to put a nonbinding ballot measure to voters to make that point. Most likely, such a question would ask voters if the city should host an Olympics that requires any public guarantee of money. Harvard, meanwhile, has announced that it won't help the bid raise money, even as Boston 2024 is pitching the region's universities as a key asset to the Games.

"We are sometimes called cynics," Dempsey says. "The boosters like to say we’re people who don’t think this can be done. We’d throw that label right back at the boosters. We think we can accomplish these important things without the glittery and expensive prize of the Olympics."

For anyone who believes an Olympics are necessary, that position doesn't simply reflect a cynicism about government. It's a commentary on the public, too — in Boston and beyond — which has lately been as unwilling to spend new money on infrastructure as government has been incapable of building it efficiently. All of us, not just government, Davey says, seem to rally around infrastructure only in times of opportunity or crisis, when we're presented with an Olympic Games or a political convention — or a tragic bridge collapse.

"For cities, we either have to accept this crisis-and-opportunity binary philosophy, or we need to rise up and expect more from people," Davey says. "We need to be willing to say, 'You know what, I’m willing to spend 10 more cents on a gallon of gas, or I’m willing to pay a toll, or I’m willing to do a vehicle miles traveled [fee].' "

Right now, Massachusetts isn't talking about raising such money. In November, voters in the state actually opted to repeal automatic increases to the state gas tax tied to inflation. And just last week, the governor proposed $40 million in cuts to transportation spending to balance the state budget.

"Boston, I think, is taking an opportunity," Davey says, because it lives in that world of opportunity or crisis or bust. "I would hope that we don’t have to do that forever. But I think that’s the state of affairs where we are right now."