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Poll: Most biotech workers angry about commutes

September 26, 2019

The State's biotech workers are stressed out and strapped for time because of bad traffic and unreliable transit, and that is spurring some to consider changing how they get to work or even moving somewhere else.

A survey conducted in July by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council of 2,133 professionals in the industry found that 79 percent had been late for work because of public transit delays, and 58 percent of public transit commuters who also have access to a car have considered switching to driving in the past month. More drivers would only exacerbate congestion problems, which have already reached a tipping point in Greater Boston. Only 35 percent of drivers have considered switching to transit, and 90 percent of transit commuters reported feeling “stressed, angry or frustrated” in the prior month.

It is a gloomy picture of how one of the state’s most coveted workforces gets around, and the poll arrives ahead of a promised debate in the Legislature over new taxes or other revenue streams to finance improvements to public transit, roads, and bridges.

While MassBIO appears pretty agnostic at this point about what exactly the state should do to make commutes easier, the group’s survey includes some alarming findings.

Sixty percent of overall respondents, and 76 percent of commuter rail riders, said they would change jobs for a better commute, and 23 percent have considered moving to another state to improve their route to and from work.

“The thing is that they easily can. In a job market like the life sciences where it’s already competitive… you may get more than just a better commute,” said Elizabeth Steele, vice president of programs and global affairs for MassBIO. “We really want to make sure that our employees are happy.”

Jim Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, has met with senators and state reps who said the transportation revenue debate is set to occur sometime between October and March.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said he wants to hear from the business community about its transportation ideas, and the Boston chamber is leading the Massachusetts Business Coalition on Transportation, which is working on those issues. MassBIO is part of that group.

For now, Rooney’s only real admonition is that something needs to be done to discourage driving and pour more money into the MBTA and mobility programs across the state.

“Both on an operating and capital basis, in order to deal with the level of backlog and crisis we have and enable us to continue to grow, more revenues have to be brought to the table. So if there is a flag we’re planting, that’s it,” said Rooney.

Over the past few decades, the cost of taking the MBTA has risen faster than the cost of driving, according to a CommonWealth data analysis. Rooney, who was acting general manager of the MBTA in the early 1990s, said he has reached a similar conclusion.

“Now in essence, in real dollars, it’s cheaper to drive,” Rooney said in an interview.

Decisions around transit fare hikes have been too focused on the money they would generate and not on the nudge they would give transit riders to find another way to get around, Rooney said.

“We have not thought about the incentives we have created – and disincentives – around the way people consume transportation,” Rooney said.

Rooney said he is not on board with the idea raised by Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu to abolish T fares altogether, but he thinks there may be particular situations where offering a free ride is a worthwhile strategy. In general, Rooney said, making something free devalues it, and doing away with fares would create a big funding gap for the T. The MBTA expects to collect roughly $694 million in fares in fiscal 2020.

By the same token, Rooney doesn’t sound as enthusiastic as Gov. Charlie Baker about the idea of using managed toll lanes – where drivers who want to avoid traffic could pay a premium and buses could travel for free. The governor is looking into how that type of highway management might be used to reduce congestion.

“I wouldn’t rule it out, but I don’t think it’s any kind of silver bullet,” Rooney said.

The biotech workers surveyed believe more should be done. Nearly two thirds said they would be likely to support higher taxes to improve the transportation system, and 82 percent said they don’t think the governor or lawmakers have done enough.

While a booming economy has produced robust state tax revenues and even a fiscal 2019 surplus of around $1 billion, Rooney said that windfall doesn’t obviate the need for new revenue streams to fund transportation. Baker has proposed using some of the fiscal 2019 surplus for tax relief.

“Surpluses occur from time to time, and then deficits occur from time to time,” said Rooney, who said transportation priorities across the state require “funding streams that we know are going to be there.”

MassBIO isn’t opposed to any ideas for improving the situation at the moment, according to Steele, and the organization’s president, Bob Coughlin, on Monday encouraged member companies to ease up on requirements for employees to show up at the office or lab at specific times. MassBIO changed its policies to let its employees work remotely one day per week and set flexible hours to avoid rush hour, Coughlin wrote in a letter.

“I’d strongly encourage your company to adopt similar remote working and flex-hours policies as well to help alleviate congestion and help improve employee morale,” wrote Coughlin, who also suggested subsidizing bike or scooter rentals.

Baker has proposed a tax incentive program to encourage companies to adopt telecommuting policies.

The survey data roughly tracks with the results of a poll conducted by MassINC Polling Group (which is under the same umbrella organization as CommonWealth) last spring, which found widespread frustration among the general commuting public in Massachusetts.

There also appears to be heightened interest recently about transportation issues within the biotech sector. In 2015, a similar survey netted less than 300 respondents. Back then, only 36 respondents said they would consider changing jobs for a better commute. Roughly four years later, the percentage was almost double that.

Meanwhile, according to a separate survey by the T of its own riders, customer satisfaction finally took a positive turn in August after the two worst months on record.

The August level of overall satisfaction – 2.74 on a scale of 1 to 5 – is still the third worst for the transit agency, but markedly better than the June and July ratings of 2.5 and 2.53, respectively.

“With a laser focus on successfully executing an $8 billion capital investment program, the MBTA is working around the clock to make the major improvements necessary to maintain the consistently reliable service that customers expect and deserve,” said T spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

T riders appeared to reach a breaking point in June when, mere weeks before a fare hike took effect, a train derailed on the Red Line and crashed into signal equipment leading to months of subpar service on the busiest subway line. T workers have made substantial improvements to Red Line service since the crash. Before the June 11 derailment, customer satisfaction had hovered well above 3 out of 5.

Rather than polling people at random, the MBTA invites customers to participate in a monthly online survey. The survey dates back to February 2016, and 1,616 people participated in the August survey.

From June to August, the share of people either very or extremely dissatisfied with the T fell from 35 percent to 27 percent. The percentage of respondents who are at least somewhat satisfied rose to 44 percent in August, and 58 percent reported being at least somewhat satisfied with their last trip.

The T’s mid-month August surveys went out after the T rolled out its first new Orange Line cars in nearly four decades.

Read this story at CommonWealthMagazine.org