Olympic Hype? What the Games Could Do to Boston Transportation

Can Boston’s transportation infrastructure handle the crowds the Olympics would attract? A former Georgia transportation ofifical says Boston has plenty of advantages.
Can Boston’s transportation infrastructure handle the crowds the Olympics would attract? A former Georgia transportation ofifical says Boston has plenty of advantages. –Barry Chin/Globe Staff

On Monday, the local organizing committee Boston 2024 submitted a proposal to make Boston the host of the 2024 Summer Olympics. The bid goes to the United States Olympic Committee, which in January will choose one US city to be the country’s nominee. Then in 2017, the International Olympic Committee will announce its final choice for where the games will be held.

The following is one part of a series looking at what might be in store for Boston if it becomes the host of the 2024 Games.

Commuters familiar with the daily grind of commuting in or around Boston probably uttered a collective groan when it was learned that Boston was submitting a bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games.

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That collective groan must have been overheard by Boston 2024, the group leading the charge to host the Olympics. On its website, Boston 2024 dismisses concerns over traffic congestion and public transportation overload as “myth.’’

The committee says the city’s public transportation system is up to the task of handling the crowds that the Olympics will attract.

“With the fourth largest capacity in the nation and ongoing expansion, Boston’s public transit system is well-equipped to handle Olympic and Paralympic visitors. The MBTA averages 1.29 million rides per weekday, twice the city’s population. In the summer months, when the Games will be held, daily commuter trips to Boston decline by 250,000,’’ a statement on the site reads.

Not only that, the group also claims, “The Games will spur major investments in roads, bridges and the MBTA that will improve the capacity and safety of Boston’s transportation system for years beyond 2024.’’

But Chris Dempsey, co-chair of the No Boston Olympics organization, which opposes the idea of hosting the Olympics, says this idea is misguided.

“Our members ride the T every day. But we’re very skeptical of claims that Olympics would increase investment in the T,’’ Dempsey told Boston.com. “We think the Olympics would be a diversion of resources and attention from the T and to a three-week party instead.’’

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Dempsey, who is a former assistant secretary of transportation for MassDOT, also believes the demands of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would be a significant imposition for Boston residents.

“IOC demands very specific concessions about reserving lanes on highways and streets for priority delegates and athletes,’’ said Dempsey. “We’re not excited about turning over [street] access to an unelected body that doesn’t represent Boston.’’

Boston.com contacted a former Georgia transportation official who played a significant role in planning Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics. Marion Waters was Georgia’s Traffic Operations Engineer when Atlanta hosted the Games. He agrees with Boston 2024’s assessment but cautions that it will take careful coordination.

“With the proper planning and inter-agency cooperation, I think all the things in that statement are true,’’ said Waters. “It’s like having the Boston Marathon, a major baseball game after that, and a major convention after that. It’s stressful on the infrastructure, but all of those things are manageable.’’

Waters believes Boston has several technological advantages that Atlanta didn’t have when it was planning and hosting the Games.

“When we wrote the original request for proposal to help manage traffic, our proposal did not include the word ‘cell phone’ or ‘Internet,’’’ said Waters. “I think Boston, with its existing infrastructure and experience hosting large-scale events like the Boston Marathon, is very well-prepared to handle transportation [challenges].’’

The Olympics also prompted Atlanta to make changes to its highway systems, several of which are already in place along major Massachusetts roadways.

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“Georgia implemented HOV lanes for first time prior to Olympics so buses would have priority. We also installed changeable message signs for the first time,’’ said Waters.

Getting the public on board is also a crucial component of planning, said Waters. During the lead-up to the 1996 Olympics, Waters says there was tremendous public participation and people understood that unique traffic patterns would be put into place.

“People’s expectations were that traffic would be special during the Olympics,’’ said Waters. “We encouraged folks to carpool and commute.’’

But the residents who really helped ease Atlanta’s traffic congestion were the ones who didn’t show up. Georgia officials encouraged residents to take vacation during the summer months.

“It was a very successful campaign,’’ said Waters. “We saw less traffic and less congestion. Pollution levels were lower. Delays were less. People who stayed were urged to go to work early and they did.’’

Waters and his team got the word that Atlanta would be hosting in 1990, giving officials six years to organize the event. If the International Olympic Committee makes its selection to host in Boston in 2017, the city will have seven years to orchestrate and execute a plan.

Waters says there is no “magic bullet’’ for Boston and state officials to learn from Atlanta’s example. But he cautions planners to remember that the whole world is watching when it comes to the Olympics.

“What makes the Olympics different is it’s a hard and fast deadline,’’ he said. “You set goals you want to accomplish and regardless of whether you achieve those goals, whether you build the infrastructure or not, the Olympics will happen.’’

A MassDOT spokesperson says the agency is ready to start planning if Boston is selected to host the Olympics. “We are aware of conceptual analyses that show a need for expanded transit services, and we expect to have discussions about ways to expand those services when necessary,’’ said Michael Verseckes in an email.

Check out how the 2024 Olympics might affect Boston real estate and Boston jobs.

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