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Report: Future of Massachusetts’ Bio Cluster Hinges On Fixing Boston’s Congested Traffic

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The future of Massachusetts’ life-sciences cluster hinges on the ability of state and federal officials to complete billions of dollars in projects designed to unclog the Boston region’s congested roads and shift thousands of drivers onto trains and buses, a nonprofit transportation policy group said this week.
 
In its report “Connecting With Our Economic Future: A Transportation Investment Strategy for the Life Sciences Cluster,” the group A Better City urged state and local officials to fund and carry out a dozen transportation projects over the next three years and additional projects beyond 2010.
 
The report, which can be read here, linked the successful completion of the projects to the ability of the state’s biotech and pharmaceutical industries to draw companies and create jobs.
 
“The continued vitality and growth of the life sciences sector depends upon the Commonwealth’s transportation and transit network both to address the growing problem of traffic congestion in the dense life sciences clusters in Boston and Cambridge and to provide the connections that are critical to this industry,” the report concluded.
 
One local company dependent on mass transit in the region is Novartis. More than half the 1,500 employees based at its Cambridge facilities commute on mass transit, Novartis spokesman Jeffrey Lockwood told BRN last week.
 
“Life science industry leaders, as well as practitioners — doctors and researchers — want to be able to connect their different places of work, and their different places of learning,” A Better City CEO Richard Dimino told BioRegion News last week. They want to move from the lab, to the place where they teach, to the patients that they serve as efficiently and as effectively as they can.
 
“The challenge for us is that the cluster of medical institutions, academic institutions, and businesses wants to grow,” he said. “But they’re challenged by mobility constraints that really hinder both workforce access to their sites, as well as connectivity within their businesses and within the larger cluster.”
 
However, the report came under fire from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the state’s principal biotech organization, which does not agree that the best way to help the industry is to spend public money on roadwork and mass transit.
 
Urban Ring
 
One project endorsed by A Better City, known as ABC, is the 17-mile “urban ring” mass transit loop corridor designed to connect Boston, Cambridge, and the communities of Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Medford, and Somerville. The service is projected to carry 150,000 riders daily and divert nearly 18,000 car trips each day from area highways, according to an  environmental report completed in 2004 by consultants to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
 
The project is the subject of a revised, joint federal-state environmental report now in the works; its release deadline was extended over the summer by six months, to May 31, 2008, after members of a citizens’ advisory committee questioned the demographic data behind the ridership projection.
 
The urban ring is projected to cost between $700 million and $2.5 billion, depending on how extensively the transit corridor is developed. Given the cost, the urban ring should be carried out in phases over a number of years, rather than at once, Dimino said.
 
The region is still reeling from the ballooning expense of its last construction mega-project. The “Big Dig” — officially the 7.5-mile Central Artery/Tunnel Project — zoomed from initial estimates of $2.5 billion to $14.7 billion by the time its last sections were finished in 2005, including $2.5 billion in overruns from its budgeted cost.
 
Among the first pieces of the urban ring that should be built, according to the report, is the East Boston Haul Road linking Logan International Airport with the Boston suburb of Chelsea.
 
“The ring offers, in the long term, an opportunity for Boston and Massachusetts to have a circumferential system that will connect the spokes of our transit line,” Dimino said. “We’re looking to build a transit system that will actually bring people into some of the emerging economic centers of the Commonwealth, as well as make the trips much more efficient and attract much more ridership.”
 
The ring will begin with a series of road projects that will grow into a network of exclusive lanes for a new mass transit service. That service will initially be bus rapid transit, “but we’re also designing for the future of the project to accommodate, more than likely, light rail in the future.”
 
There is precedent for that: the Silver Line operates as a BRT, but was designed for eventual conversion to light rail. That will also be the case when the line is expanded with a tunnel to link Boston’s South Station with the Boylston Street station.
 
The 2004 environmental report envisioned seven bus rapid-transit routes costing a total $741 million, not counting debt service. BRT gives the urban ring system some flexibility, since “at least in the early phases,” until the mass transit lanes are built, it will have to operate on the same roads as cars, Dimino said.
 
He added the urban ring should also shorten the trips and reduce the number of required transfers for some passengers who now ride existing commuter lines into downtown Boston, then have to take subways back out into outlying areas because those areas aren’t connected. “People don’t mind making one transfer, but when they start making two or three, the viability of a transit choice becomes less and less.”
 
One piece of the urban ring was included in the 2006 Economic Stimulus Act signed by Patrick’s predecessor, Mitt Romney — $90,000 toward a study of a transit tunnel under the Longwood Medical Area; the study has received $450,000 in earmarked federal funding.
 
Among the other projects A Better City is pursuing by 2010 are several others funded through the stimulus law, such as:
  • Renovating the Fenway, Kenmore, and Longwood stations of the subway’s Green Line at a cost of $16 million, and repairing roads near the three subway stations, projected to cost $12.5 million. The stimulus bill appropriated $5 million in general funds and authorized $11 million in bonds for the project.
  • Upgrading the Yawkey commuter rail station to full two-way service, at $12 million; and
  • Completing a $500,000 study of a new multi-modal “West” station in North Allston.
Another recommended project would add two round trips between Boston and Framingham and Worcester. Such service is now spotty, with 20 trains heading from Boston to Framingham each weekday, and only 10 daily from Boston to Worcester.
 
Dimino said Worcester was worthy of expanded service given the presence of two facilities of state-funded University of Massachusetts, its Medical Center and Medical School; and the expectation of a growing life sciences cluster. Worcester Polytechnic Institute plans to expand its Gateway Park research campus north of downtown [BioRegion News, Sept. 10].
 
UMass’ Worcester campus would see two new facilities — a $66 million stem-cell bank and a $38 million RNA interference center — under Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed $1 billion, 10-year Life Sciences Initiative intended to support the industry. The proposal is under review, with a key lawmaker telling BRN it will clear his committee by the end of January. [BioRegion News, Nov. 5]
 
Other short-term projects recommended in the report, without cost estimates:
  • Acquire more railroad rights-of-way from CSX;
  • Improve coordination of public transit schedules with those of private shuttle bus operators serving larger life sciences institutions and corporations;
  • Increase the subway’s Silver Line service to the South End Medical Center area, including Boston University’s BioSquare research campus; and Boston’s Marine Industrial Park, where several life sciences businesses are located;
  • Add bus service to Harvard University’s Allston Landing campus, located across the Charles River from the university’s main campus in Cambridge. Harvard won approval Oct. 3 from the Boston Redevelopment Authority for plans to build 589,000 square feet of facilities in four buildings over 8.5 acres on the south side of Western Avenue east of its intersection with North Harvard Street. 
  • Study the feasibility of a new station at or near the intersection of the Boston University Bridge and Commonwealth Avenue;
  • Study the feasibility of linking to each other three commuter rail lines — the Greenbush branch of the Old Colony line, the Fairmount line and the Framingham/Worcester line; and
  • Plan and design the urban ring and North Allston projects as well as a Green Line extension to Somerville, and the Red-Blue Connector, which would extend the subway’s Blue Line from Bowdoin station to the Red Line at Charles/Massachusetts General Hospital station.
Dinino said these and other projects should not affect existing mass transit service, though he acknowledged some bus routes may need to be changed while others could experience longer waiting times. In the case of longer waits, “the T will have to add additional buses,” he said. “That would have an impact on their operating budget, which is tough.”
 
Longer term, ABC’s report recommends several other mass transit projects, including:
  • Developing detailed phasing and financial plans for urban ring;
  • Extending the Green Line Green Line from Lechmere Station in Cambridge through Somerville to Medford with a branch to Union Square in Somerville. The project would create six new stations — and improve the commute of Sommerville residents to the Longwood Medical Area and elsewhere in Boston;
  • Completing design and engineering of the Red-Blue Connector by 2011, with the state securing construction funding by then;
  • Reconstructing Melnea Cass Boulevard, which connects the Longwood Medical and Academic Area both to residential neighborhoods and to the Crosstown area near BioSquare and the Boston Medical Center; and
  • Conducting environmental, design, and engineering reviews of rebuilding Boston’s Sullivan Square and nearby streets, including Rutherford Avenue. The city and Metropolitan Planning Organization have secured $13 million in federal funds for the project.
“Charlestown’s Sullivan Square is an area where life sciences companies could cluster to be near Cambridge’s Kendall Square without encountering the high occupancy costs in that area,” the report stated.
 
Dimino said he did not foresee requesting a bond issue that would require voter approval: “Currently there’s no referendum being sought. We’re looking at legislative changes.”
 

“The continued vitality and growth of the life sciences sector depends upon the Commonwealth’s transportation and transit network … to address the growing problem of traffic congestion in the dense life sciences clusters in Boston and Cambridge.”

One possible change, he said, could come from Patrick’s administration. It is studying possible legislation to change the governing structure for the agencies that oversee transportation, both for highways and mass transit, with reduced cost and greater efficiency in mind.
 
Another possibility, he said, is earmarking for transportation expenses the revenues Massachusetts collects from motor-vehicle registration fees and the state’s 23.5-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax — the 19th-highest in the nation.
 
That tax may rise soon. On Sept. 17, the state Transportation Finance Commission issued a report recommending an 11.5-cent tax hike, to 35 cents per gallon, as part of a plan to raise $19 billion toward a variety of state transportation projects.
 
Transportation Finance in Massachusetts: Volume 2, Building a Sustainable Transportation Financing System” also recommends reducing pension benefits to MBTA retirees; eliminating the 2.5-percent cap on the growth of operating costs incurred by regional transit authorities; imposing a 5-cent-per-mile “user fee” on motorists whose travel would be tracked electronically, rather than impose tolls; and look into imposing a surcharge on parking.
 
“The problems are severe, so the solutions cannot be timid,” the commission’s report concluded. “To those who say that we should solve the problem through elimination of waste and inefficiency, we agree. Unfortunately, most of the cost-saving ideas amount to million-dollar solutions in a billion-dollar world — cost-saving measures alone cannot get us where we need to go. Nor can we borrow our way out of this problem.”
 
Keeping Pace
 
Dimino said the Boston region needed to keep pace with other regions nationwide that have funded or are planning new transportation projects with life sciences in mind. Among those regions:
  • San Francisco: A $648 million, 5.1-mile T-Third Street light rail service from downtown Castro Station to Sunnydale station began full service last April. The line crosses the Mission Bay life sciences campus, where developer Alexandria Real Estate Equities has 2.2 million total square feet of lab and office space planned by 2011, plus rights to build another 2.7 million square feet.
  • San Diego: The planned $1.2 billion Mid Coast Corridor Transit Project will extend by 11 miles the city’s trolley system, starting from just north of the Old Town Transit Center north to University Towne Centre, traveling parallel to Interstate 5 for parts of its route. Eight new stations would be created, two of them at University of California, San Diego.
  • Research Triangle Park, NC: A rail system projected to cost $810 million is part of a series of transit projects envisioned to serve the region and its life sciences employers. On Oct. 31, the Special Transit Advisory Commission issued initial recommendations to the Capital Area and Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro metropolitan planning organizations. A final report is due in January.
  • Denver: The Denver Regional Transportation District in November 2006 opened its $1.75 billion T-Rex/Southwest Extension, consisting of a new 19-mile light rail project linking downtown Denver with suburban Douglas County and Aurora; as well as improvements to 17 miles of Interstates 25 and 225.
“What we’re seeing across the United States are a series of transit investments that are being directly related to those states promoting life sciences economic growth,” Dimino said.
 
Transportation Trouble
 
Days after releasing the report, Dimino and Stephanie Pollack, a senior research associate at the Northeastern University Center for Urban and Regional Policy, called for adding funding for transportation projects to the $1 billion, 10-year bill introduced by Gov. Patrick to assist the life sciences industry.
 
“While business incentives, select capital improvements, gap research funding, and workforce development should all be considered as important components of the pending legislation, strategic transportation investments should also be included,” Dimino and Pollack wrote in an op-ed column published Nov. 8 by the Boston Globe.
 
That argument has angered the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, an official of the 500-plus member group told BioRegion News via e-mail.
 
“Frankly, the MBC and its members do not agree with the ABC's contention — in the least — that if public funds are to be spent on the life science industry that they are best spent on transportation projects,” wrote Peter Abair, director of economic development for the biotech council.
 
Abair said MBC and the life sciences industry thought they saw eye to eye with ABC during discussions held through the Massachusetts Life Sciences Collaborative, the public-private panel of business, academic and government leaders that helped Patrick craft his life sciences proposal.
 
Indeed the collaborative included “Improve connectivity/transportation” as one of its eight policy priorities during its organizing committee meeting, held March 30 at the [email protected] in Cambridge.
 
“The life science industry provided a forum for what we thought was a helpful engagement with the ABC,” Abair wrote. “In light of the ABC's op-ed, it is the view of the MBC that ABC's report was little more than a superficial engagement with our cluster for the ultimate purpose of using this civic-minded industry to further ABC's narrowly focused transportation agenda.”
 
“I can state that transportation issues taken alone are not a serious concern for biotech companies,” he said.
 
However, the Boston region’s increasing traffic congestion was labeled a “major problem” by a majority of the 105 life sciences executives from 92 organizations who responded to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, with support from the New England Healthcare Institute, Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council.
 
“Transportation is in gridlock,” PwC and its partners concluded in their report summing up the survey results, “Super Cluster: Ideas, Perspectives and updates from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Industry.” “Of those surveyed, 59 percent said transportation is a major problem, and 83 percent said it was hard just to get to work.”
 
The report was one of three over a six-month period that warned of continued erosion of the Boston region’s life science industry leadership absent more state support, especially on transportation and other quality of life concerns such as education and housing.
 
Answering a BioRegion News question about the PwC report minutes after announcing his life sciences plan, Patrick cited transportation as a key quality-of-life factor of concern to biotech and pharma CEOs.
He said new projects should emerge near residential areas — as with Patrick’s proposal, announced in April, to restore commuter rail service by 2016 from Boston’s South Station south to Fall River and New Bedford.
 
Among the goals of the proposed $1.4 billion South Coast Rail line is reducing auto use by locating new housing near mass transit. It was a goal also espoused over the past two decades by a succession of governors who promised commuter rail service to Fall River and New Bedford.
 
“We know this has to happen not just in the greater Boston area, but across the commonwealth,” Patrick told BRN. “The smart growth idea of the previous administration was right. The strategy was right. We intend to execute it.”

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