Four ways an uncertain 2024 Olympics bid is likely to stay totally unpredictable
Most of the comments and questions coming Wednesday to a four-person panel representing the Boston2024 Olympics bid were hostile, with at least one speaker accusing the panel of lying and another refusing to even look in the officials’ direction.
Along with accusations of environmental irresponsibility and an agenda that rewards the rich and displaces the poor and questions about the impact of an estimated 195,500 visitors every day for three weeks came criticisms about how Boston2024 went about making Massachusetts the U.S. choice to bid for the summer games and Paralympics: privately. Last month the City Council adopted a policy order denouncing the organization for acting “without meaningful public input or any real community engagement.”
In general, Cantabrigians have been wary of the idea, with only the suggestion of fixes to a vital but badly aging mass transit system winning grudging interest for the idea.
Boston2024 is now traveling the state on a listening tour (first described as 20 meetings in 20 weeks, but swelling to about 35 meetings in that same period as they keep accepting offers, according to executive vice president Erin Murphy Rafferty) and heading toward a Sept. 15 deadline to declare an official city candidacy to the International Olympic Committee. A final application and guarantee letter is due Jan. 8.
Here are four takeaways from Wednesday’s three-hour meeting at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School’s Fitzgerald Theatre, where a huge majority of the questions ranged from skeptical to scathing:
Boston2024 principals say they’re fine with a referendum. Letting the people weigh in on whether they want the group to make a bid was a recurring theme, with Somerville’s Heather Thompson summing it up most articulately and, for an increasingly bleary smattering of audience, rousingly: “Why has a citizens referendum not been an automatic part of this process, as it was in Hamburg? Why do they have democracy down better than we do?”
The panelists took it in stride, calling a vote not part of the formal U.S. process, but not something the group would block. “Nobody here is preventing it from happening,” Olympics expert and adviser Doug Arnot said.
An accusation from Thompson that Boston2024 might be “running out the clock” with its process drew a sharper response from Rafferty: “Everybody in this room has the ability to start the signature-gathering for a referendum. We’ve said all along that if that’s what folks want, we will certainly not stand in the way.”
A WBUR poll of 505 registered Boston voters found support for an Olympics bid dropping to 44 percent in February from 51 percent the previous month, and opposition growing to 46 percent from 33 percent – after the region’s mass transit broke down repeatedly in the face of a harsh winter.
Oslo, Norway, opted out of a 2022 winter games bid recently after nearly 60 percent of voters nationwide gave plans the thumbs-down.
The plan will change. But the next version isn’t on a schedule. After the 35-meeting listening tour, Boston2024 is going to make revisions to its plan and show what has changed based on public input, Rafferty told Cambridge’s Saul Tannenbaum during the Q&A.
But the timeline for that is not quite clear. “There isn’t a specific date yet. We are get through this [first], but we will have one, and a new announcement in terms of the next phase,” Rafferty said afterward.
Arnot contradicted that, saying there wouldn’t be a single, solid revision – an answer also a bit at odds with the panel’s representations during the meeting and his own shutdown of a resident who called out a challenge for the panel to name a single thing it would change as a result of citizen complaints. He told her there would be a reconsideration after the round of meetings, only when everyone had a chance to be heard.
“It probably isn’t going to be, ‘Okay, we’re taking all this and now here’s the new plan,’” he said later. “We will continue iterations of this as we will continue discussions also. So there really isn’t a fixed date.”
Mass transit could get an Olympics boost. But it’s a gamble. Early in the meeting the panel flashed a slide showing saying its plans “accelerate and put a deadline on improvements that are already priorities,” including MBTA upgrades and “new red and orange line cars”; South Station expansion plans; the green line extension; and a rail link between the Back Bay and Boston Convention & Exhibition Center stations.
Arnot further noted that Salt Lake City, Utah, saw its transit plans boosted when it won the 2002 games, with Interstate 215 improvements accelerated by about a decade and a light rail project by at least five years. “There is a history of this, of working with the U.S. Department of Transportation,” he said. But he wasn’t exactly reckless with his promises.
“It is not a given,” Arnot said. “It takes hard work. But it is an opportunity we have.”
He agreed that being able to claim faster and widespread improvements to the T and other mass transit would be a great selling point for the Olympics bid, but confessed to being unsure of the timeline or process for locking in a federal commitment.
“That’s a really hard question, because that’s all part of the 21st Century Transportation bond bill, and that has to be funded,” said panelist David Manfredi, founder and principal of Elkus-Manfredi Architects. Sparking funding through a confirmed Olympics bid “is possible, and that’s certainly the hope, but I don’t think you would see that until you were much further along in the process.”
Arnot said a commitment to federal transportation funding could happen before the bid went in, “but it might not happen until.” The Salt Lake City transportation changes were largely secured after the games were won – which makes relying on money for systemic mass transit changes in Boston look a little bit more like a gamble and less like a selling point.
Cambridge’s Steve Kaiser was upset that there were no MBTA officials on the tour, considering how crucial transit is to winning over the public and making a Boston summer games work. Even Boston2024’s chief executive, the former state Secretary of Transportation, was missing from the meeting; Rafferty said he was with a sick relative.
You shouldn’t even get used to the logo. Questions about remaking the Boston2024 logo – which officially is inspired by the laurel wreath bestowed upon winning athletes in ancient Greece but somewhat inauspiciously suggests Boston is crying a frozen tear – were greeted with resigned laughter from Arnot and Manfredi.
There will be a decision whether to use the logo for the application phase, Arnot said, then a possible other candidate phase logo and finally another for the games themselves.