Next Stop: Olympics

There’s only one way Massachusetts is ever going to be smart enough to fix the MBTA—and that’s by doing the stupidest thing possible.


Photo Illustration by C. J. Burton

There is a movement afoot to bring the 2024 Summer Olympic Games to Boston. A group of local big-timers, including Bob Kraft, Mitt Romney, and Suffolk Construction chairman and CEO John Fish, are pushing the idea, and there’s even an official state commission to study the matter. This all terrifies me.

Think about it: If for some godforsaken reason the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Boston, we’d have to spend billions of dollars building all sorts of wild stuff we have no use for (unless you’ve always felt that the one thing missing from Allston is an archery range). A thousand mini Big Digs would bloom across the city. The projects would assuredly run behind schedule and over budget, and there would probably be some bizarre concrete scam involving what’s left of the local mob.

Then, once the games began, there’d be traffic, crowds, and noise. The security state implemented would make the system erected for the 2004 Democratic National Convention look like little more than a bunch of Paul Blart Mall Cops puttering around on Segways. We’d be told that it’s all worth it, though, because somehow rubbing elbows with juiced-up athletes and weird Olympic pin collectors would finally make Boston a world-class city.

Hosting the Olympics is about the dumbest idea possible. But here’s the thing: We have to do it anyway.

It’s the only way we’ll ever do something we’ve already been too stupid to do for a long time: fix the ancient, fragile, and perennially troubled MBTA. Train breakdowns, cracked rails, and long delays have all become routine. I hate it. We all hate it. But the MBTA is absolutely crucial to the region’s future economic well-being. It’s the backbone of our tech sector, our medical industry, and our universities. It’s the true central artery that pumps life through the city, and as residents increasingly shift away from automobiles as their main mode of transportation, the system is more important than ever. By failing to address its needs, we risk the entire region’s future.

But as much as we all like to complain about the MBTA, we’ve never actually had the wisdom to do anything about it. Today, the system is some $9 billion in debt and $3 billion behind on maintenance projects—that’s three billion dollars just to fix what’s broken right now. Even though the MBTA has plans in the works for new T cars over the next decade, that’s just a drop in the bucket. Our politicians have long ignored the system’s problems and show few signs of changing. Repairs just aren’t sexy (you can’t cut a ribbon on new brake pads). Unfortunately, comprehensive, statewide fiscal reform is even unsexier.

Governor Deval Patrick attempted gamely in 2013 to address some of the MBTA’s problems when he put forward a billion-dollar-per-year proposal to help close the system’s budget deficit and fund statewide transportation projects. The plan included not just expansion projects like the South Coast rail and the Green Line extension, but also regular maintenance needs like upgrading cars on the Red and Orange lines. The proposal, which also featured highway and bridge funding, was ultimately cut down in Beacon Hill’s legislative shark tank. The House and Senate ended up passing a watered-down plan that didn’t come close to those funding levels and, as the governor said, “shortchanges our transportation needs.” Patrick vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode him. His reforms would hardly have been a cure-all, but if even a popular governor couldn’t move the ball on MBTA reform, then what can?

Hosting a mega event like the Olympics would finally provide us with the excuse—and money—to do it. Imagine, just for a moment, what a well-functioning future MBTA system would look like: fast, reliable, and with tracks that don’t catch fire. The Silver Line would resemble something that lives up to its Bus Rapid Transit moniker, the Urban Ring BRT would be a reality, and the T could run nearly 24/7, enticing recent graduates from our umpteen universities to stick around instead of fleeing for New York or San Francisco. Even better, with the Olympics, tons of funding would come—like it did for the Big Dig—from the federal government (Salt Lake City, for example, got hundreds of millions of dollars to help build a new light-rail system in anticipation of 2002).

Granted, Olympic cities notoriously regret hosting the games: Montrealers are still carping about 1976. But hey, folks in Utah aren’t about to give back their new transit system.

Believe it or not, the experts say this idea might actually work. Professor Stephanie Pollack, of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, says that while we often vaguely discuss fixing the MBTA in the future, tying the project to the Olympics would focus our attention.

“If you’re going to host the Olympics, now you have to get it done on a certain day,” Pollack says. “It gives you a calendar that you cannot miss, and public projects don’t usually have this.”

Pollack also says that although the idea of using the Olympics to fix the MBTA is slightly troubling, it could rally people to the cause. “Infrastructure investment is a slow, painful, long-term process. It’s not very interesting and not very exciting. Things like the Olympics create excitement and allow people to overcome boredom and inertia that usually come with infrastructure investments,” she says.

Beyond the benefit of putting a gun to our collective head, the Olympics would bring another advantage: private investment. Take the Boston Landing commuter-rail station in Brighton, which New Balance is single-handedly paying for as part of its huge mixed-used development project in the area. City Councilor Matt O’Malley sees the potential for similar projects with the Olympics.

“Certain revenue streams would be available to us,” he says. “We need to think of some new partnerships and work with the business communities to expand and accelerate certain projects.”

The councilor is onto something. The Olympics provide a real opportunity for Boston and its neighbors to coax money out of wealthy private businesses. We’re not just talking naming rights to buildings, either. Privately funded, mixed-used, transit-oriented developments like Boston Landing could be a major part of any Olympic bid.

And there’s another advantage: The Olympics would be regional, not just confined to city limits. That could entice state lawmakers who have so far resisted investing megabucks in a project for the Boston area. The leading legislative figure in the 2024 bid, state Senator Eileen Donoghue, represents Lowell. That city has buses and a commuter-rail station, but lacks as comprehensive a system as Greater Boston.

“There’s an opportunity, I believe, to benefit beyond just the city limits of Boston,” Donoghue says.

The MBTA has been publicly mum about the Olympics’ potential as a silver bullet cure. Privately, though, officials have expressed optimism about the games’ potential to bring improvements to the system, even if they do acknowledge that it’s not exactly the best way to go about making long-term public policy.

“There is a pattern of cities investing when the Olympics come, so it is not out of the realm of possibility, but it is not something we are banking on to fix the system’s problems,” says MassDOT spokesperson Cyndi Roy Gonzalez.

Hey, I never said using the Olympics to save the MBTA was a good plan. It’s actually a stupid one. The thing is, there’s only one thing that would be stupider: not fixing the MBTA.

  • TeamRik

    So what you’re really saying is that you 1) know nothing about the Olympics and 2) know nothing about all of the facilities we already have here in the Greater Boston/New England area which is what the Bid would be… There is only 1 thing that would have to be built and guess what, it was already being planned… A Stadium for the New England Revolution that would have temporary seating for the Opening Ceremonies of 80,000. And FYI this was being researched and planned years before Kraft, Fish or Romney were invited to the Committee.. Typical ridiculous Boston Media…

  • Chris Dempsey

    Garrett, this is a really silly argument. Even if you believe the Olympics would force us to get the MBTA fixed and shining for the opening ceremonies, we would have built a bunch of MBTA infrastructure that we don’t need, leaving us with the same legacy we have today — too few maintenance dollars chasing too many problems. An Olympics in Boston would make things far worse for the T riders who matter most — those of us who ride every day.

    • adztheman

      If the Commonwealth got all this Federal money for the Big Dig, why is the State of Massachusetts still paying something between $600 and $700 million, for the next 20 years or so, to pay off the Big Dig?

      The best Boston could get from the most recent Federal Transportation bill was $100 million to finish a Green Line extension that was federally mandated.

      South Coast Rail? Locally, some of us call it The Great Lie…because with a price tag now estimated at $3.2 Billion, there is no money and no political will in Boston to build this thing…

      And when the construction plans are finally released one fine day, the Conservation Law Foundation will use every means in their arsenal to make sure it never gets built..and the permitting process to get 31 cities and towns to go along has yet to begin…

      Nice Try…say hi to the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, ok?

  • Othemts

    While I believe the Summer Olympics would require far to great an expense in building venues, temporary housing, and infrastructure that would become white elephants after the games, I also believe that Boston is perfectly suited to hosting the Winter Olympics. Boston is already home to several venues comparable to those used for hosting ice events at other Winter Olympics including Boston Garden, Matthews Arena, Agganis Arena, Walter Brown Arena, and Bright Arena, The opening/closing ceremonies could be held at Fenway Park and the mountain events at a ski resort in NH or VT. Money spent on the Winter Games would be for improvements to existing venues and updating transportation infrastructure which would be a win-win for Boston’s future. I think a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics (fittingly the 250th anniversary of Independence) should be seriously considered by Boston.

  • James Rose

    Boston would be a great city to host a future Summer Olympics. With the abundance of hotel rooms and university dormitories we have in the Boston/Cambridge area, we’re well equipped to accommodate the huge number of visitors that we could expect for an event such as this.

    The challenge will be to transport the athletes and spectators to the events, and this is where the MBTA could play a key role. The MBTA will need some major upgrades and expansion to get the job done properly.

    The cost to implement these improvements will be in the billions of dollars, without a doubt, and a significant increase in the state gas tax will be necessary to fund these projects, along with generous federal support if possible.

    The Green Line is where the bulk of the work is necessary to move our Olympic visitors through the city, and reduce traffic bottlenecks along Commonwealth Avenue, Beacon Street and Huntington Avenue. There is a critical need to tunnel the B (Boston College Line-Commonwealth Avenue), C (Cleveland Circle Line-Beacon Street) and E (Huntington Avenue/Arborway) lines:
    B: Double-track tunnel from Kenmore Square to just past the intersection of Harvard Street in Allston.
    C: Double-track tunnel from Kenmore Square to just past the intersection of Washington Street in Coolidge Corner.
    E: Double-track tunnel from the Symphony stop to where the E lines turns south onto S. Huntington Avenue in Mission Hill.

    The best investment of capital funds that the MBTA could possibly
    make would be to realign the Central Subway. Here is a track schematic to illustrate a plan that I recently read about:

    “The this colored lines represent the tracks, the thick colored lines represent the station platforms, dashed lines mean the tracks are below the top tracks:

    A – Remove the bottleneck of the Copley Junction by
    dropping the Huntington Ave subway under Copley station into a second two track tunnel to just past Arlington station where it would ascend to meet the current tracks.

    B – Rebuild Boylston station. Realign the 4 tracks from Park St south into the Tremont St tunnels, eliminating the curve, and build a new two track tunnel under Boylston station to continue on to South Station. Also, build a set of tracks that dive under and bypass Boylston station entirely creating an express track from Park St to Copley Square.

    C – Build a second two track tunnel from Park St to Government Center, rebuilding Government Center so there are two parallel platforms and a third platform below that would serve the Blue
    Line and the loop track coming from the north. Also create a turnaround loop that dives below the tracks continuing to Haymarket. This realignment will fix the second worst bottleneck in the system, the stretch of subway from Park St to Government Center that was only built two tracks wide.

    D – Stuart St subway, which would be an alternative
    to choice A, would take the Huntington Ave subway into its own tunnel
    and connect to the Central Subway via the abandoned Tremont St tunnels. Provisions would be made to extend the Tremont St tunnels down to Dudley Sq. This plan also calls for extending the Huntington Ave subway down Huntington Ave into Brookline to connect to the Riverside branch, rerouting the D and E branches into a new subway and expanding capacity in the Boylston St subway”.

    The other major improvements to the MBTA rapid transit would be to extend the Blue Line west to MGH to link up with the Red Line Station, and to extend it north from Wonderland to Lynn Central Square, providing North Shore Commuters with a much faster connection to Logan Airport and the Financial District and Waterfront.

  • ariof

    +1 for Chris Dempsey. 2026 is a good year for the US (no Olympics since 2002, no North American winter games since 2010) to bid, the 250th of the Declaration of Independence notwithstanding. After watching Sochi and Pyeongchang build new arenas for pretty much everything, Boston could have every arena in town ready to go with minor modifications (how hard is it to turn a hockey rink in to a curling venue?). Summer needs way more venues, and is a much larger number of competitors and spectators. Winter is more manageable, and there are many fewer potential locations (Sochi and Pyeongchang are both a bit of a stretch as far as winter cities go).

    As far as other potential US venues go, Boston measures up to any of them.

    Reno/Tahoe has two major issues. First, Reno? Are there any major arenas in Reno? (No.) Alpine events are easy (unless there’s a Sierra snowstorm that closes everything for days), but everything else would have to be built from scratch. And Nordic events can’t be held above 5800 feet, which is well below the level of Lake Tahoe and would have to be built with a ton of snowmaking, and probably never used after the games.

    Salt Lake City works, everything could be reused from 2002. But it’s kind of a cop-out. The only city which had a shorter time in between games was Innsbruck, and that’s only because Denver declined the games in 1976.

    Denver would work pretty well. They’re investing a ton of money in transportation infrastructure and have several arenas in town and mountains nearby. Two issues. First, a Nordic area below 5800 feet would need a lot of snowmaking (or imported snow harvested from higher up; perhaps sent through the Moffat Tunnel in rail cars?) to keep up with the average high in Denver in the winter (45º) and events would have to be held earlier in the day for snow conditions. Second, the IOC’s penchant for corruptness is matched only by spite. I don’t doubt that they’d look at Denver and see a spurned lover from 1976, and that might put a damper on their hopes.

    Anchorage would work, too. You’d probably wind up with the games in March (owing to daylight and temperatures, and it might well coincide with the start Iditarod which would be cool) and they’d need to build hotel rooms and indoor venues. It would be a pretty small city to host, and far from everything, although that could be said of Sochi.

    But Boston has no glaring deficiencies. The in-town venues are in place except for a speed-skating track (which is huge); the 2002 venue in Salt Lake cost $30m, so figure twice that today. Figure skating, short track speed skating, hockey and curling could take place at a combination of the arenas mentioned, plus Conte Forum, plus the DCU in Worcester and the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence. Figure speed skating at TD Garden with smaller ice events at other arenas in town; preliminary hockey matches in Worcester and Providence with finals at the Garden.

    You’d need a sliding center (everyone does, Whistler’s cost $100m, so figure $150m) a snowboard/freestyle venue, an Alpine venue and a Nordic venue.

    Snowboard/freestyle is easy: build a 5 mile extension of the Fitchburg Line to the base of Wachusett. Some environmental issues (you’d be taking some land along Route 31 through Leominster State Forest) but justifiable since you’d be providing better access to Wachusett State Park (hiking/bicycling/skiing). Build the sliding center nearby. For Nordic, you could also build this in the area (only the summit of Mount Washington is above 5800 feet). Or pretty much anywhere in New England; you only need about 100 feet of elevation differential. One idea would be Brattleboro, which already has ski jumps in town, is right on I-91, and a rail line, but pretty far from Boston. Potentially you could have jumping in Brattleboro and Nordic at Wachusett; the Nordic Combined athletes would have to commute an hour along Route 2 between venues (the venues in Sochi are on different sides of the valley) or have trails laid out in Brattleboro (there are existing trails there that could be used with some modifications).

    There’s Alpine, the biggest lift for New England. You need 800m (2625 feet) of elevation differential, which only a few resorts in New England can muster. Killington is less than three hours from Boston, not far from rail access to NYC (Rutland, WRJ), with a huge facility at the base, but it’s longest run doesn’t drop straight down. Sugarbush might be better. (Nowhere in New Hampshire comes close.) You could purpose-build 2600 feet of vertical in a few places (the nearest, actually, would be on the east side of Ascutney) but it would be far more costly.

    So figure: $75m for a speed skating oval (which could be built with post-games uses in mind), $150m for a sliding center, $50m for a Nordic center, $25m for Alpine and $25m for modifications to existing arenas. That’s $325m; 0.65% of the cost of the Sochi games. With contingency, round it up to $500m, still less than 1%.

    So, infrastructure. $3b for existing issues. $2b for new rolling stock. Now you’re up to 10% of the cost of Sochi, but you’ve just bought yourself 50 years of better transit service.

    Some infrastructure improvements? If you’re holding hockey games in Worcester, you probably want sub-60 minute service to Worcester, right? Great. Spend $250m or $500m to do that, because then after the games you’ll still have quick service to the second-largest city in the state! Guess what? That’s a good thing. As opposed to building a highway and rail line up a valley with a bunch of white elephant ski venues which barely have enough snow (cough Sochi cough).

    To get to Wachusett, you’d probably also want better service. The T is spending $150m to upgrade the Fitchburg Line; another $150m would remove the bottleneck in Waltham and improve speeds throughout. Figure $50m for an extension from the planned terminus at Route 31 to the base of Wachusett. With this, you build a major recreation area (Nordic ski trails can be hike/bike trails in the summer, for instance) and you can provide good access without a car to these facilities. Not as good of an investment as fast service to Worcester, but providing access to outdoor recreation is laudable. Wachusett already has significant night skiing traffic, an hour-long train ride (as opposed to a two-hour crawl on Route 2) would bring many more people for evening activities (and us Nordic skiers would certainly welcome an accessible venue not on a golf course).

    That’s $1b of infratructure to Worcester and Fitchburg. Now, how to get people to Vermont for Alpine events (for jumping in Brattleboro, I’m figuring you run buses and/or trains from Boston/Springfield; the ski jumps there are less than a mile from the train station and Mass/the feds are investing in upgrading rail service from Springfield north as we speak, and, hey, direct service from Boston to Amherst—there’s some college there I think—wouldn’t be a bad thing). Traffic on 93 is a nightmare, but you could carve out a carpool lane/buses only during the Olympics lane from Boston to Manchester (assuming NH finishes upgrading the road north of the border). Or, you upgrade the line from Boston to Concord (via Lowell), build a transfer station at the base of I-89, and send buses north. Cost? $1b or so. Benefit? A major alternative to I-93.

    So what are we up to? $500m for venues. $5b for T state of good repair. $2b more for rail infrastructure. Let’s throw in another $2.5b for in-town infrastructure (like, say, a Red-Blue connector, or transit-level service from North Station to Kendall to Allston—a great place for an Olympic village with 5000 units of housing which after the games could be used for, I don’t know, housing—and the like. That brings us nicely to $10b. That’s 20% of the cost of the Sochi games. And with it, you get better service along four major commuter corridors, a new fleet of transit vehicles that last decades, and some new, transit-oriented housing to boot. Now, if you can leverage a good bit of that in federal dollars, all the better.

    So, yeah, I think the Olympics would be a decent way to get necessary improvements to transit. The time frame (10 to 12 years) is decent. I just don’t think the summer games are the way to go.