Remember the Big Dig

Olympics bid shouldn’t hog scarce infrastructure dollars

AS THE SON of a history teacher, my father taught me early on that a strong appreciation of history is essential for understanding the issues and challenges of the present. President Harry Truman put it well when he said, “The only thing that is new in this world is the history that you don’t know.” In that spirit, we need to remember the lessons of recent history in Massachusetts and apply them to the current effort to bring the 2024 Olympics to Boston. This effort has been led primarily by Boston business leaders.

Given the billions in public funding required, and the limited public process to date, communities all across Massachusetts are at risk of losing funding for important regional economic development and transportation projects for decades to come unless the Olympics discussion takes a more equitable and transparent turn.

For starters, a baseline principle must be that the commitment of public infrastructure dollars required in the Greater Boston area for the 2024 Olympic bid must be met with a statutory commitment and guarantee of simultaneous funding for equally important regional transportation and economic development projects across Massachusetts. This is a key lesson that we must remember from the financial mismanagement and fallout of the Big Dig.

The nearly $30 billion Big Dig project cost far more than expected and, for decades, the bill starved the transportation and infrastructure needs of the rest of Massachusetts. The Big Dig funding plan was a bipartisan debacle approved by Republican governors and Democratic legislatures. The real costs of the Big Dig were either wildly underestimated or intentionally low-balled and lacked sufficient revenue to pay for the projects borrowing. Regions outside of Boston were adversely impacted for a generation.

More recently, two pieces of legislation approved at the State House underscore the influence that Boston business interests and their allies can have in advancing their agenda, sometimes at the cost of statewide needs. The $1 billion Boston Convention and Exhibition Center expansion project was approved last year but did not include the funding needed for Worcester’s $60 million DCU Center Phase III renovation, nor the $30 million for Springfield’s MassMutual garage. Other important regional projects were also not included.

Similarly, the Gateway Cities legislation (House Bill 311), seeking $475 million over five years, to invest in important projects in 26 Massachusetts cities, was significantly pared down to $88.6 million over three years. The $475 million request was considered “too rich” by Bostonbased interests, which was why the bill was not publically supported by many of the Bostonbased business organizations.

As we contemplate support for a Boston Olympics, it is critical that the Commonwealth‘s mayors’ regional legislative delegations, regional chambers and economic development organizations, as well as editorial boards of the state’s regional newspapers, come together quickly to ensure that history does not repeat itself with public infrastructure spending concentrated within the Boston beltway.

There are currently worthy infrastructure and economic development projects across Massachusetts that merit funding and would have a positive impact on the state’s regional economies and the Commonwealth as a whole. However, pushing Olympicrelated projects to the front of the line, with only a finite amount of public capital dollars available statewide, would again direct spending in the Boston-Cambridge area for the next decade. This would further short-change and delay projects in other regions of the Commonwealth and repeat the mistakes of the Big Dig.

To avoid repeating this costly mistake, leaders in regions outside of Greater Boston must become fully engaged in the Boston 2024 conversation. Elected leaders at the State House cannot abdicate the responsibility of their oath of office to serve the public interest of the entire Commonwealth to committees or organizations that have no accountability to the public. Moreover, that interest cannot be served if only Boston-based, Olympicrelated projects take priority over others under the state’s bond cap.

A shared benefit from public investment and equitable and simultaneous funding for transportation and infrastructure needs across the state must be the framework pursued by the Baker-Polito administration and the Legislature as they address the details of the Boston 2024 Olympic bid request for limited public infrastructure dollars.

In the meantime, regional business and government leaders must get involved in the debate to protect their regional economic development and transportation priorities. Regional legislative delegations must make it known now, to House and Senate leadership, both publicly and unequivocally, that they will not support the use of public funds that prioritize limited infrastructure dollars solely for the Boston Olympics. Support for the 2024 bid should only come if it includes statutory guarantees that transportation and infrastructure funding will be distributed equitably and simultaneously across the state. Only through this process can we prevent history from repeating itself and make the Boston 2024 Olympics something that the entire Commonwealth can embrace.

Timothy P. Murray is the president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and previously served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and mayor of Worcester.