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Taxpayers Footing Some Olympic Bills


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Salt Lake City, Utah Dec. 11, 2001 (AP by Tim Dahlberg)–Spectators won’t have to worry about how to get to most events when the Winter Olympics begin. Shuttle buses will take them across town, up mountains and to the doorstep of every venue.

It won’t cost them a dime. Taxpayers are picking up the tab.

The most expensive Winter Olympics ever will make ends meet largely because the federal government is picking up the tab for 18 cents on every dollar.

Making sure terrorists don’t strike the Feb. 8-24 games is costly enough. But taxpayers will be paying for a lot more than keeping everyone safe for 17 days.

Federal funds will be used for everything from forecasting weather to promoting a special wild horse adoption program. At least 44 different federal agencies are providing support, including $55,000 by the Department of Justice to assess the amount of racial tension in Salt Lake City during the games.

A new road into the Snowbasin ski resort, site of the downhill, was funded by $15 million from the federal government, while taxpayers also paid for upgrades to the Salt Lake International Airport, including $2.8 million for new approach lighting.

In all, American taxpayers will spend some $380 million on the Olympics, or more than a dollar for every man, woman and child in the country.

“It’s a backdoor, ever-escalating, ever-increasing cost,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a critic of federal Olympic funding. “Even Mitt Romney agrees Olympic spending is out of control.”

Not exactly. While Romney, the head of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, says he would like to see future Olympics cost less, his will be the most expensive Winter Olympics ever.

It will also be the most expensive for taxpayers, who will pay more for Salt Lake City than the much bigger Los Angeles and Atlanta Summer Olympics combined.

More than half of that money _ some $225 million _ will go to keep athletes and visitors safe during the games. But millions will also go to build parking lots, pay for bus drivers and help fund doping control.

Although unprecedented in scale, it’s nothing new. Taxpayers paid to heat the Olympic swimming pool and build a whitewater rafting course in Atlanta.

Former Atlanta Olympic chief Billy Payne believes it’s the proper role of the government to support the games.

“I’m a fan of Sen. McCain, but I think he’s wrong on Olympic issues,” Payne said. “I believe the Olympic movement is precisely the kind of international cooperation and gathering that has the potential of teaching us all around this world we can live together in peace.”

A recent General Accounting Office report estimated the federal government will spend $342 million on the games, or 18 percent of the nearly $1.9 billion total needed to stage them.

That doesn’t include another $35 million to $40 million that is being added to the security budget after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Nor does it include more than $1 billion spent to overhaul the main freeway running through Salt Lake City and put in a light rail line from the suburbs to downtown.

The freeway and light rail costs were included in an earlier GAO report, which said the improvements were expedited so they could be done before the Olympics begin. But a second report last month requested by Utah Sen. Bob Bennett looked at only the direct costs.

Bennett, whose influential seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee helped Utah secure much of its funding, said at the time that the costs were not only reasonable but important for the federal government to fund.

“As I’ve continually said, the 2002 Games are America’s games, not just Salt Lake City’s, and the participation of the U.S. government is not only an appropriate responsibility, but a privilege,” Bennett said.

McCain, who claimed many of the expenditures were approved in a “pork barreling way” without specific votes, disagrreed.

“I’m sure the people of Arizona are proud of the Olympics in Salt Lake City,” McCain said. “I’m not so sure how proud they are to build them highways or to pay to transport people around during the games. We need highways in Arizona, too.”

One thing is certain, though: Taxpayers won’t have to put up any more money for Olympics for at least another 10 years.

That’s the earliest the games can return to the United States, and New York, Houston, San Francisco and Washington are bidding for the Summer Olympics.

Little federal government funding is found in those bids, though the same could have been said for Salt Lake’s original bid.

“Our bid does not contemplate a whole bunch of federal support,” said George Demontrond, head of Houston’s bid. “It’s nice if it happens, but to the point of building freeways or mass transit infrastructure, we haven’t relied on that.”

Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press