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Pope visit will lift spirits more than local economies

The historic visit this week by Pope Francis is expected to generate huge turnouts at multiple events in three cities, offering the chance for a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual boost for millions of faithful Catholics.

Some are also predicting an economic boost for the cities hosting the pontiff's visit.

With millions of the faithful expected to flock to dozens of public events in three major cities, organizers of the event say the pope's visit produce a windfall for area hotels, restaurants, event vendors and others. Philadelphia alone will see an estimated $418 million in increased economic activity, according the World Meeting of Families, which is organizing the pope's six-day trip.

But the events will also come with significant costs, including increased security, snarled local traffic and lost productivity. Adding up the net costs and benefits is an extremely difficult exercise.

That's why net economic benefits of large public events such as conventions or sports tournaments are often overstated, according to a 2008 study by economists at the College of the Holy Cross.

"While the conventional wisdom regarding national conventions is that they bring fame and fortune to host cities, our results suggest that any economic benefits are quite elusive," the authors wrote.

A lot depends on how many people actually show up, but organizers estimate several million people will make the pilgrimage, many of whom have signed up for tour packages that will bring an armada of buses to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City.

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On the cost side of the ledger, one of the single biggest line items will be the cost of local crowd control, street closures, emergency services and security for event venues and the pope's safe travel along his itinerary.

Philadelphia officials have estimated out-of-pocket costs at roughly $12 million, with much of that needed to cover added services from the police and fire departments. Officials in New York and Washington have so far declined to provide cost estimates for city services.

But they are bracing for one of the biggest security challenges they've faced in a while. And local residents and businesses are bracing for epic traffic jams.

For the pope's Philadelphia visit, state and local officials plan to close 30 miles of highway in Philadelphia and New Jersey, and wave through only emergency vehicles and charter buses. They're also converting a major bridge from New Jersey into a pedestrian walkway and banning cars from driving on downtown streets closest to the events.

In New York City, the pope's itinerary will be accompanied by dozens of rolling street closures and a virtual lockdown of the areas around St Patrick's Cathedral, the papal nuncio, the United Nations and Madison Square Garden, which sits atop Pennsylvania Station, one of two main transit hubs that handles 600,000 commuters a day.

New Yorkers are accustomed to visiting dignitaries and large conventions. But some past events, including the 2004 Republican convention, have stretched the city's streets and transit system to the limit and put a serious dent in the local economy's productivity. One study by economists at Suffolk University's Beacon Hill Institute estimated that that event brought a roughly $20 million hit to productivity.

The huge crowds likely will also prompt some local residents to stay home, hurting businesses that depend on foot traffic from the regular customers.

Philadelphia officials have created a hashtag #OpenInPHL to try to get the word out that shops and restaurants will continue to serve their customers. Some businesses are responding.

"Even if beer needs to be delivered by drone, @McGillins will be open," tweeted the city's oldest bar, McGillin's Olde Ale House.

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But for every deli that sees slower lunch traffic, there will be a selfie-stick vendor doing a brisk business, along with T-shirt vendors and food carts along the Pope's routes. Event organizers have also set up a website for Pope-related merchandise, where Pope Francis bobbleheads dolls are going for $25 and a 12-ounce can cooler will set you back $5.

While tens of thousands of tickets to the pope's public appearances have been distributed for free, scalpers are apparently doing a brisk business, too. Passes for prime locations along Friday's papal procession on Central Park West were listed this week for $1,000 a pair on Craigslist.

Local hotels are also seeing a boost in bookings, though room rates have come down considerably from the initial prices posted when the pope's itinerary was announced. Airbnb, a listing service for short-term private homes and apartment rentals, reports that listings in Philadelphia have more than tripled since April.

But the pope's visit also cuts both ways for e-commerce. Street closures and snarled roadways have created major headaches for shippers like FedEx and UPS, which have warned customers in neighborhoods in and around the pope's itinerary that package deliveries will likely be delayed.

That could be a major disappointment for buyers of the Apple's latest iPhone 6S and 6S Plus models, which officially go on sale Friday.

UPS reminded customers on its website that normal delivery guarantee "does not apply when transportation networks are disrupted due to events of this nature."