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.