The MBTA and the Olympics, two topics near the top of Boston’s public consciousness this winter, collided Tuesday morning at a Suffolk University panel discussion about the city’s bid for the 2024 Summer Games and the effect it may have on regional infrastructure and housing.
The T and Boston’s Olympic bid have long been linked, of course. The possibility of transit upgrades was bandied about as part and parcel with Boston’s Olympic aspirations over the course of 2014. “What the Olympics does is fast-track that, it allows us the opportunity to really talk to our partners in the state and federal government about upgrading the infrastructure that we have,’’ Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said in December.
And a state study released in early 2014 that said an Olympic bid would be feasible: “The goal of hosting an Olympics also could serve as a catalyst to address these critical infrastructure needs on an expedited timeline.’’
As No Boston Olympics co-chair and former MassDOT official Chris Dempsey said during Tuesday’s panel, that hasn’t quite been the talking point of Olympic organizing group Boston 2024 since it won the United States Olympic Committee’s support in January. Instead, it has said the only things it needs to see in order to host the Olympics are ones that are already underway—including new Red and Orange line trains and the Government Center station upgrades. Boston 2024 CEO and former state transportation secretary Richard Davey has said the group would like to see more on the transit front, such as expansion of South Station and upgrades on the JFK/UMass station. Some of these other projects could eventually be funded, but Boston 2024’s sales pitch does not currently depend on it. At Tuesday’s panel, Davey referred to the Olympic bid as an “opportunity’’ to talk about these types of projects.
Talking about transit spending is a little bit of a tight spot for Boston 2024, which has vowed to limit Olympic-related state funds to infrastructure costs already on the state’s radar. But the T now has a backlog of needed work estimated at $6.7 billion, and is fresh off a winter that harshly exposed its deficiencies. And at Tuesday’s forum, multiple people said they wanted to see MBTA investment play more of a role in—if not serve as a prerequisite for—any Olympics discussion.
Dempsey, for instance, said Boston 2024 has not said it supports new revenues to fix the MBTA. He said that if the group were to do so, his own opposition group would “applaud’’ and “support’’ the position. Jim Aloisi, another Patrick era state transit head who described himself as “agnostic’’ about the Olympics, said discussion of hosting an Olympics is pointless if the state isn’t willing to fix the T first. “If we don’t have the will and the political courage… to deal with these issues then we have no business being here talking about hosting an Olympics,’’ he said. Two members of the panel’s audience suggested that if Boston is going to bid on the Olympics, it ought to think about reviving the fabled talks of a rail link to connect North and South stations. (Davey’s response, citing the “investments we’re willing to make and the way to pay,’’ suggested that was highly unlikely.)
This all sounded kind of familiar. During the MBTA’s winter of discontent, the T and the Olympics were often discussed in tandem, sometimes from two different perspectives: Either the T is not equipped to host the Olympics, or the Olympics could force fixes for the T.
Davey said the Olympics could help the T, but “are not going to solve all of our problems,’’ which are estimated to cost more than $6 billion at this point. “We absolutely need to get our transportation house in order,’’ he said.