By Kathryn Breen
After the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA)’s miserable performance throughout the 2015 winter, filled with delays and cancellations, many in Boston laugh at Boston2024’s claims that the city’s public transit is capable of hosting a mega-event.
“[Boston2024] is a terrible idea. Where are you going to put it? I would say this: If we can’t find a place for snow, where are we going to find a place for the Olympics?,” asked former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank in a March 2015 interview with Boston Magazine.
A big question on the minds of many Boston residents is how the city’s transportation system would be able to handle such a large influx of tourists, athletes, and overall visitors if or when it hosts the 2024 Summer Olympics.
“We need to commit to reinventing our transportation system regardless, whether we host the Olympics or not,” said Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim. As the head of the City Council’s special committee on transportation, Zakim said he believes that transportation is key. “Transportation is certainly something that is on people’s mind that needs to be addressed.”
Boston2024, however, sees this as an opportunity rather than a burden. The group argued that hosting the Olympics could be similar to “we’re having company, let’s clean up the house,” said Eric Bourassa, the transportation director at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. He suggested that Boston should focus on pedestrian-accessible forms of transportation as well as public transportation including subway cars and the commuter rail in order to improve the city’s transportation system.
The Boston2024 committee looks to emphasize Boston’s walkability. The city currently ranks as the 3rd most walkable city in the country after New York City and San Francisco, California, according to www.walkscore.com. This walkability factor combined with proximity of venues to public transportation are two key factors that have been laid out by Boston2024 which the organization will need to be able to convince residents on.
“I took a MBTA orange line car that’s older than me just to get to Roxbury’s Boston2024 forum, but we can’t spend money on that?,” Harvard Square resident Chip Goines said as he was on his way to the Roxbury community meeting in late April. Goines represents a rising trend of residents who simply believe that there are much more important areas to focus on than the Olympics.
Boston2024, however, laid out that hosting the Olympics could be, “the catalyst and deadline to finally make this investment a reality” in their 2024 bid documents, which were released after months of protest by the general public. The group has since changed its mindset, however, to be along the lines of ‘Boston has enough transportation infrastructure in place, but we just need to make some slight improvements,” Bourassa said.
As Boston2024 moves forward, it is led by a man who has had his fair share of transportation experience. Richard Davey, the CEO of the Boston2024 committee, is the former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, serving for three years under former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has also laid out a transportation program describing the long-term plans for Boston and the MBTA. Go Boston 2030 is a City of Boston initiative that aims to develop a vision of the city that includes, “transformative policies and projects to improve transportation for the city’s residents, business and visitors,” according to the official report by Mayor Walsh’s office.
The initiative will involve an 18-month public engagement process to determine the needs of the city and of the citizens. Regardless of Boston winning or losing the bid, this plan will be put in place to address Boston residents’ transit troubles.
Planned transportation improvements include changes to the MBTA signal system, which Eva Kassens-Noor, an urban and regional planning professor at Michigan State University, said is in dire need of fixing. “Boston has a transportation system in place,” Kassens-Noor said, “but that’s not to say that it doesn’t need improving.”
Kassens-Noor cited past Olympic Games that have successfully added onto, and in some cases transformed, their host city’s transportation systems, such as Sydney, Australia and London, England. Kassens-Noor said both continue to see positive consequences of their improved transportation structures.
Olympics-related transportation improvements would likely require taxpayer dollars, Mayor Walsh said in an interview with the Dorchester Reporter newspaper. Based on reactions on social media, in community meetings, and in conversation with residents, this has not gone over well. These changes, however, may be necessary for the city in the long run.
Bourassa noted that while many residents have been complaining that traffic congestion is a big concern, in reality that may not be the case. “People seem to think that it’s going to be like a Red Sox game where everyone from the suburbs are going to be driving in [to watch the games],” Bourassa said. He added that most tourists would be staying in downtown Boston, and therefore would have no need to use a car. Therefore, there would likely be less traffic congestion than most expect. Additionally, in Boston2024’s bid, as part of a ticket purchase, it is supposedly being proposed that the ticket holder would receive a T-pass to use for the specific events they are attending.
But memories of a challenging winter and horrible service from the MBTA, the T, and the commuter rail make it a challenge for Boston2024 to convince residents of the potential of the city’s transportation system.
In late April, a Boston Globe report cited further transit troubles tied to the games. It reported the planned Olympic Stadium in Widdett Circle would occupy space that is currently used for MBTA transit car repairs. A report by WCVB news said, “Officials acknowledge some of it cannot be moved without driving up costs or disrupting MBTA maintenance.”