The Humble Pope’s Costly U.S. Visit – and How He Can Pay It Back
Policy + Politics

The Humble Pope’s Costly U.S. Visit – and How He Can Pay It Back

There is plenty of uncertainty surrounding Pope Francis’ visit to the United States: How hard will the Pontiff push his politically controversial views on the environment and income inequality when he addresses the U.S. Congress? Will he weigh in on hot-button controversies in the U.S. surrounding gay marriage? What about abortion? But one area where the impact of the Pope’s six-day tour is all but certain to be felt is on the pocketbooks of federal, state and local governments.

Though he is known for shedding some of the more opulent trappings of his office, one thing Francis is not able to eliminate is the need for enormous security and crowd control operations wherever he goes – and those come at a cost.

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The pope’s three-city tour was designated a National Special Security Event by the federal government, which puts the Secret Service in charge of coordinating protection with multiple other agencies, including the police and other authorities in Washington, Philadelphia and New York City, the state police in Pennsylvania and New York, the Capitol Police in D.C., the Coast Guard, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and countless other groups.

Events given National Special Security status typically come with federal funds backing them up, and the federal budget allocates a relatively modest $4.5 million to them annually. It’s not clear how much the federal government will have to spend to keep Francis safe, but it will unquestionably come to more than that.

One of the few hard estimates of what it will cost to provide part of the security for the papal visit comes from Philadelphia, where the pope will say Mass and attend a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families that is expected to draw visitors by the hundreds of thousands. The city government has indicated that it expects to be reimbursed $12 million or more by the event’s organizers to cover the costs of a stepped up police presence, traffic control and other efforts by the city government to make the papal visit run smoothly.

It’s unclear whether the costs to local law enforcement for managing the visits to New York and Washington will be comparable to those in Philadelphia. And even if they are, they tell only part of the story. The pontiff’s travel routes between cities will have to be secured, disrupting normal air traffic patterns, and every city where the Pope sets his foot will be transformed, for two to three days, into a congested, gridlocked traffic nightmare, impeding the normal operation of businesses and government services, which also comes at a cost.

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The costs aren’t limited to the government, either. On Wednesday, Politico reported that news organizations looking to send reporters to cover the World Meeting of Families would be charged thousands of dollars apiece for guaranteed seating – from $1,500 for a single chair for a photographer to $25,000 for an “anchor booth” allowing live television coverage.

On the flip side, however, is the fact that the pope’s visit is also expected to generate revenue. The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, for example, has estimated that the papal visit, combined with the World Meeting of Families, will generate $418 million in spending in and around the city, a number that encompasses food and lodging, transportation and the innumerable pope-themed souvenirs, from t-shirts to bobble-head dolls, currently being sold by vendors all over the three cities where Francis is scheduled to appear.

The Philadelphia figure is likely far larger than any revenue windfall that Washington and New York are expected to see, as it includes the multi-day World Meeting of Families. Still, hotels and restaurants in both cities are expecting a boost from the visit. In the early morning hours Wednesday, out-of-town visitors were already assembling along the National Mall in Washington, hoping for a glimpse of Francis when his motorcade passed by later in the day.

Though clearly not meant as payment, the pope will offer an expensive gift to the U.S. people, giving one of twelve hand-written and illuminated bibles commissioned by a U.S. monastery to the Library of Congress. The seven-volume work is said to have cost $8 million to produce.

And who knows? On Wednesday at the White House, Francis said that in his address to a joint meeting of Congress during his time in Washington he will offer “words of encouragement to those called to guide the nation’s political future in fidelity to its founding principles.” If he manages to persuade lawmakers to work together and to avoid a costly government shutdown, he could cover the entire cost of the visit right there.