Davey: Continue state subsidy for Greenway

Pursue new Conservancy revenues, tap abutters

THE GREENWAY CONSERVANCY, a not-for-profit entity charged with programming and maintaining the Rose Kennedy Greenway, has recently generated headlines that have called into question the appropriate level of state support for the Greenway. I had those same questions when I served as state transportation secretary.  Indeed, I expressed those concerns in these pages (Rumble in the Park, Commonwealth, Summer 2012) about the state’s financial support of the Conservancy, and called for the Conservancy’s state subsidy to be eliminated by 2018.

It’s tempting to think, given our myriad of transportation challenges, that money would be better spent on paving some roads, fixing a bridge, or helping run the MBTA.  However, in hindsight, I believe a total elimination of state funding is neither feasible nor wise.  There is a better approach which recognizes the state’s obvious interest, the Conservancy’s mission, and involves the real estate owners who have benefitted from the Greenway’s existence.

This year, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) will provide approximately $2.1 million in public funds to the Conservancy to support the Greenway operations.  Rather than cutting off state funding altogether, the Conservancy and MassDOT should work together to address the long-term capital and operating needs of the Greenway in a sustainable way by adopting the following path:

Create a state-funded capital asset fund: Whether one believes that MassDOT should support the park or not, the reality is that the park is owned by MassDOT, serves as the roof of the O’Neill tunnel, and was a key promise in the development of the Central Artery/Tunnel project.  The state cannot walk away from its obligation to keep the tunnel in a state of good repair, and that includes what sits on top of the tunnel. At the same time, the Greenway edges closer and closer to its tenth anniversary and the need for preventative maintenance and replacement of critical equipment will become necessary.  However, neither MassDOT nor the Conservancy has set aside funds for these inevitable capital expenses.  In short, we run the risk of repeating the same mistakes we made in decades past when billions were spent on transportation enhancements while maintenance was deferred and existing infrastructure deteriorated. MassDOT should refocus its annual financial commitment to the Greenway from one of ongoing operational subsidies to a newly established capital asset reserve fund to keep Greenway assets in good repair.  Furthermore, MassDOT and the Conservancy should develop a 10-year capital plan to guide  disbursements from the fund.

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Fundraise and generate fee income for operations: With capital needs resting with MassDOT, the Conservancy should squarely focus on raising money to fund operations.  Currently, the Conservancy generates revenue through private donations, endowment income, and earned revenue.  In total, private revenue accounts for about 60 percent of its funds, while about 40 percent of funding is provided by MassDOT.  The Conservancy has pursued new earned income opportunities in the past several years, with rental fees from food trucks and admission fees to the Greenway Carousel.  Private philanthropy has also gained new traction, as evidenced by the Tiffany & Company Foundation’s $1.5 million contribution toward the Greenway Carousel.  However, the Conservancy should step up its efforts to generate new fee income by expanding naming rights opportunities, booking private events for a fee, and seeking discrete donations for visual art displays.

Formalize contributions from abutters: Since the Greenway’s inception, opinion leaders and elected officials have contemplated the creation of a Business Improvement District (BID) along the Greenway.  Such a BID would require annual contributions from abutters in support of Greenway operations and maintenance.  Efforts to implement a BID, however, have faltered in the past due to the recession, concerns about the Conservancy’s stewardship, and authority over BID revenues.  To be sure, a number of the abutters to the Greenway are themselves local businesses whose leaders were closely involved in the formation of the Greenway — and in some cases, they have made regular contributions directly to the Conservancy.  Yet, all of the landowners along the Greenway have clearly benefitted from the space, as have many others as the Greenway has become one of the city’s top destinations.  The Greenway District Planning Study commissioned by the Boston Redevelopment Authority confirmed that commercial property values in the Greenway District exceed those in the rest of Boston’s central business district by at least 15 percent.  While we can’t turn back the clock to create a mechanism for the Greenway to share the wealth of increased property values in its wake, we can take steps now to support the long-term fiscal viability of Greenway operations, maintenance, and programming through a BID.

Meet the Author
In less the than a decade, the Greenway has become downtown Boston’s front yard and premier gathering space thanks to public markets, a maturing landscape, adjacent private investment, free Wi-Fi, a creative public arts program, and food trucks that provide daily activities for workers, visitors, and residents alike.  Simply put, it’s already become impossible to imagine downtown Boston without it.  But in order for the Greenway to continue to maintain its grandeur, the Conservancy, the Commonwealth, and abutters should partner to create new, sustainable sources of operating and capital revenue for years to come.

Richard A. Davey is the former Massachusetts secretary of transportation.