Friday, May 20, 2016

Kendall Square Tech/Biotech/Biopharma Needs to Get Vocal About Transit!

Earlier this week, the current big Boston-area mass construction transit project, known as GLX, went through a near-death experience.  The project, having been mismanaged to be over budget and behind schedule in the early going, was approved to survive in a stripped down form.  Numerous political types were quoted supporting the project, albeit complaining about contributions their towns were making to keep the project alive. What wasn't heard was any sort of support from the tech, biotech and biopharma companies which crowd Kendall Square.

GLX is one of a bevy of transit projects the state of Massachusetts had promised as part of the enormous highway project known as The Big Dig; many of the others never got as far as full design. GLX would extend the Green Line trolley service from its current terminal at Lechmere to a new terminus near Tufts University, about five miles away. By mostly running within an existing sunken railroad right-of-way, GLX would offer fast service with no at-grade crossings. The existing Lechmere Station would be replaced with a far more functional station across the street from the existing location. The new line was also planned to sport a pedestrian and bicycle path known as The Community Path, and a new maintenance faculty would be built, and additional cars for the Green Line. In addition, a spur would serve Union Square in Somerville

The cutbacks include hacking off a key part of the Community Path, downsizing the maintenance base and making most of the stations bare bones designs (no fare gates, fewer with elevators, simpler and smaller shelters). I'll save my rant on the Community path for next week, but all of these are significant downgrades.  Even with these cuts, there is still a $75M gap between committed funds and estimated costs -- and that assumes no further overruns.

Kendall Square has burgeoned in recent years, but remarkably this has actually come with a reduction in car traffic.  Many of my coworkers drive, but many of us walk, bike, or take buses or trains on a regular basis.  But for this trend to continue, more attention needs to be paid to transit, which is actually in dire need of some advocacy.

Back in my student days, some restaurant we frequented had a circa 1940 route map of what is now the T. The map was remarkably similar to today's route structure. Some of that reflects canalizations by street patterns which in turn reflect local topography, but changes could be made. Patterns of housing and employment have changed, but only slightly the bus routes.

For example, considering routes directly into Kendall, you can't get a one seat ride to the Charlestown Navy Yard area, which has housing and also biotech incubators. Assembly Row is an exciting new mixed use development which will have the operations headquarters of the 800-pound gorilla of local healthcare, Partners. Again, no direct service. Large amounts of Somerville and Medford are geographically near, but in terms of the bus route graph many hops away.  Novel services such as EZRide and Bridj help, but so much more needs to be done.

The Red Line subway is perhaps the biggest conveyor of employees to Kendall, but is typically at crush capacity during rush hour, an unsubtle technical term.  Could be worse:  it is routine to be left on an Orange Line platform in the morning. Fixing theses requires funding for new cars and increased frequency

Now, GLX won't actually go into Kendall, so why should Kendall companies care? Multiple reasons. First, many "Kendall Square" companies are a short walk from Lechmere. Second, between Hubway and EZRide (though the latter has its own crush issues), all of Kendall is close to Lechmere. Third, Kendall is nearly full (a topic for another day); a logical next development area is the huge project called North Point that surrounds the new Lechmere Station site. 

But most importantly, the system is a system. Improving Red Line frequencies would benefit all the communities in the route. Better Orange Line service would mean more people willing to commute to Kendall from Jamaica Plain and Forest Hills. Getting the best talent implies minimizing the barriers to possible talent getting to your workplace. Talent also needs to be drawn from a larger geographical area, as housing prices close to Kendall are pricing entry level employees out of the market.  Ultimately, getting GLX done (and done well) will open the door to future projects such as connecting the two commuter rail systems with an underground tunnel, extending the Blue Line to connect with the Red Line, or the Urban Ring circumferential line that would go through Kendall Square and probably have multiple stations serving employment zones.

So why aren't the Kendall Square employers, or their associations, speaking up?  Ensuring that Kendall doesn't choke on traffic routinely should be a high priority for the Massachusetts Biotechology Council, but nary a peep on GLX or any other transit issue.  Vertex now has a beautiful harborside headquarters -- and the main transit line (The Silver Line) is effectively an extension of the Red Line (that's the only line it connects to) -- and the north end of the Red Line is yet another biotech-rich area (Alewife). Shouldn't the site heads for Novartis or Takeda or Pfizer be out there promoting the idea that not only does better transit help them grow, but it also cuts down on the negative impacts for the surrounding neighborhoods? And ultimately, kicking in some extra cash might just make good sense.

Of course, one fear could be that advocacy will lead to calls for the advocates kicking in funding for the improvements.  It would be important to emphasize what is already being funded, such as contributions for EZRide, and perhaps to consider a bit more.  I would also behoove the companies to think carefully before launching private buses (EZRide is available to the public at a fare actually lower than the T, though T-passes are not valid on it) -- at least one prominent company has a bus from the suburbs, but given the negative publicity around these services in the BAy Area I'd suggest they avoid them.

Decent transit is a key component to making Kendall Square work.  It's time for the corporate community to recognize this.

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