Entries by Andrew Mikula

MBTA must get “on board” with commuter rail accessibility upgrades

If you regularly ride the MBTA commuter rail, you’ve probably experienced a number of delays, patchy service, limited parking, overcrowding, and outdated equipment. But some would-be riders have significant difficulty boarding the train in the first place at most stations – namely, the elderly, disabled, and otherwise mobility-impaired individuals.    The problem is that many of the system’s 143 station stops were designed in the 19th century, long before the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated accommodating people in wheelchairs. As a result, a 2018 MBTA report listed a paltry 36 percent of commuter rail stations as “fully handicapped accessible” and 24 percent of the stations as requiring riders to climb stairs to board a train. Another 40 percent are “partially […]

MassDOT’s West Station design plans fall one track short

In 2014, MassDOT proposed the construction of West Station, a new transit hub in Allston-Brighton that would significantly improve the connectivity of Boston’s western suburbs with Cambridge and North Station. Using an old freight corridor called the Grand Junction Railroad, the project initially seemed like a neat work-around to the inevitably exorbitant costs and disruptiveness of the North-South Rail Link, at least for Framingham/Worcester Line users. Unfortunately, MassDOT’s recent designs for the station will potentially limit accessibility to new destinations and old ones alike.    Instead of a four-track ideal that would accommodate both inbound and outbound travel on each branch, MassDOT wants to limit local Framingham/Worcester Line trips to a single track to accommodate two express trains that existing […]

Greater Boston as a Global Competitor

This report finds that in order for Boston to become even more attractive to international companies and investors, Boston-area leaders must work to improve housing and healthcare affordability, transportation infrastructure, economic development policies, and education. Pioneer synthesized dozens of economic, lifestyle, and governance indicators into five categories of importance to Boston’s profile in the international competition for talent and investment.

In the past few years, the tobacco industry has thrived in Massachusetts. Here’s why.

Despite recent good news about declines in alcohol, traditional cigarette, and hard drug use among young people, it seems that retailers of these heavily regulated (or just plain illegal) substances aren’t going away any time soon. The number of Massachusetts bars and nightclubs – or, in the words of the Census Bureau, “places primarily engaged in preparing and serving alcoholic beverages for immediate consumption” – has wavered between about 700 and 800 since the late 1990s in a pattern that, amusingly (and probably coincidentally), seems countercyclical (see Figure 1).    Figure 1:  Source: Your-economy Time Series   However, more concerning than the trend in drinking establishments is the trend in tobacco stores, defined as “establishments primarily engaged in retailing cigarettes, cigars, […]

After nearly a decade of national economic growth, Worcester economy is still a mixed bag

In 2018, Worcester had 111,553 employees and 10,546 businesses. The number of businesses grew by 51% from 1998 to 2018, while the total number of employees increased by 1% (see Figure 1 below).  However, the number of employees in the city declined by 20% between 2008 and 2011, which largely coincides with the Great Recession. Employment growth in Worcester has generally been positive since the end of the recession, keeping pace with population growth.   Figure 1: Trends in the number of employees and number of businesses in the city of Worcester, Worcester County, and Massachusetts as a whole                   Overall, trends in business and employment growth in Worcester closely resemble those of the […]

Is Boston’s Health Care Industry Still Growing? Here’s What the Data Says.

From 1998 to 2018 in Massachusetts, employment in the Health Care and Social Assistance sector grew by 45% and the number of establishments grew by 149%, as seen in Figures 1.a. and 1.b. below. The number of establishments has increased steadily over time with the exception of 2014-2015, while employment growth has fluctuated after the 2008 recession. Generally, year-to-year changes in employment and the number of establishments are positively correlated, with the major exception of the recession in 2008-2010, in which employment in the industry contracted and the number of business establishments grew. Figure 1.a. The number of employees in the Health Care and Social Assistance industry in Massachusetts over time Figure 1.b. The number of employers in the Health […]

Massachusetts Government Needs More Transparency on Financial Conflicts Of Interest

The Pioneer Institute recently released a new index rating the transparency and accessibility of each state’s Statements of Financial Interest. SFIs are disclosures used to determine if elected officials and policymakers have potential conflicts of interest.   Pioneer’s new index finds that, among states with procedures for reporting SFIs, Massachusetts has the lowest raw score (15 on a scale of 100). Ironically, states that commonly rank among the most politically corrupt in the country – like Illinois, Louisiana, and New York – have index scores of 90 or higher.    Pioneer’s rating is based on 7 underlying criteria: whether the SFIs are available online, whether the form is electronically searchable, whether the reports are free for the public to access, […]

Public Comment on MassDOT’s I-90 Allston Multimodal Project National Environmental Policy Act Review Scoping Report

Pioneer Institute’s Public Comment calls on the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to revise its Scoping Report on the I-90 Allston Multimodal Project and recommend an additional option to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The Institute believes that closer analysis of an at-grade option may reveal that an at-grade design will shorten construction time, lower costs, create fewer negative economic and congestion impacts, and improve neighborhood access to parkland along the Charles River.

Should Boston want to be the home of Amazon’s second headquarters?

Amazon is the kind of company whose mere presence is enough to transform a city. Billions of dollars in investment, tens of thousands of high-paying jobs, and a major impact on transportation and land use have characterized Amazon’s relationship with its primary home of Seattle. As the company continues to grow, its process to determine the location for its second headquarters has attracted momentous attention. Amazon finished site visits of proposed locations in May, and the so-called “HQ2” project continues to garner media attention from both local outlets and nationally renowned think tanks. At first glance, whichever city Amazon chooses seems to have won a kind of lottery. Infrastructure upgrades, all-but-guaranteed job growth, and a stage for international connections all […]

Is local government in Massachusetts too pervasive?

In a country as culturally and politically diverse as the United States, vastly different political systems have come to serve local populations in various states. Certain regions of the nation have far-reaching and invasive local government systems, while others have large swaths of the population that don’t have any sub-county government at all. A typical Greater Boston town has about 25,000 people, while urban conglomerations out west often consist mostly of unincorporated communities. Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, has well over 2 million residents but only 5 municipal governments. Meanwhile, Cumming, Georgia is a city of 6,000 people whose mailing address serves over 100,000 people. Cumming is the only incorporated community in its county. At the opposite extreme, […]

Investing in commercial development may ease fiscal woes without affecting crime

Bedford, Massachusetts is a suburban town of about 14,000 in the heart of Middlesex County. Its Wikipedia page boasts a charming picture of a historic train depot engulfed in fiery fall foliage. Driving through Bedford at night, you would hardly notice the slew of tech companies and manufacturing operations tucked into a corner of the town next to Route 3, the numerous hotels and motels that dot Route 4, or the community college that cozies up to the Billerica town line. During the day, however, Bedford’s population more than doubles because of people who are employed at all these establishments. The town’s employment/residence ratio is 3.44, almost twice that of Boston.   “Daytime population,” essentially a measure of population that […]

Boston’s housing boom needs a region-level response

In 1912 – the same year the Titanic sank and William Howard Taft was elected president – a Brookline lawyer, Daniel J. Kiley, wrote a bill for the Massachusetts state legislature that would have annexed 32 cities and towns – including such disparate communities as Lynn, Wellesley, and Weymouth – to the City of Boston. Kiley was part of an entire movement of urban policymakers who thought it was imperative to the Boston region’s economy to facilitate the coordination of each town’s government institutions. At an extreme, this meant annexation.   Boston’s (short) annexation history is quite unique in the context of older American cities. As a result, the region is well-connected economically, but divided into far more individual municipalities […]

Boston is a global city. Here’s why that status is threatened

Boston is often touted as a “global city.” A quick Google search will tell you that Boston is one of the best cities in the world for everything from quality of life to tech startups to commercial real estate investment. While traditionally an economic indicator, there’s now a general understanding that global cities have certain social and cultural institutions by definition. A smattering of global city rankings place Boston at 15th, 24th, 25th, and 46th. Others define a global city as having at least a million residents, under which parameter Boston doesn’t even qualify. Any index that tries to encapsulate dozens of indicators will miss some important nuances. Even if everyone suddenly agreed on the definition of a global city, […]

Has UMass used financial aid packages to favor out-of-state students?

A recent Pioneer Institute report concluded that the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has more stringent admissions standards for Bay State students than it does for out-of-state students. Given that UMass is heavily funded by state residents’ tax dollars, some experts have questioned whether UMass is favoring out-of-state students and their tuition revenue rather than serving the broader interests of the Commonwealth. Despite the scrutiny over admissions, UMass has the ability to tip the scales towards out-of-state students in another way: merit-based financial aid.   UMass students have access to both state and UMass institutional programs for financial aid, both of which ultimately are funded partly by taxpayers. UMass may claim that state funding doesn’t directly contribute to financial aid […]

Massachusetts needs the 2020 Census to be accurate and adequately funded

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Massachusetts’ population grew at an almost unprecedented rate in the late 1990s, gaining nearly 200,000 residents between 1999 and 2000 alone. If Massachusetts had kept up this pace of growth, it would have over 10.8 million residents in 2018, as opposed to the more modest 6.8 million we actually see today.   Where did this astounding rate of population growth come from? An economic boom? An aggressive housing creation initiative? An influx of immigrants or refugees? None of the above. To put it bluntly, the St. Louis Fed’s data is misleading at best.     The problem is that their intercensal population figures for the 1990s come from an initial Census […]

New taxable land parcels are getting very scarce in urban Massachusetts

Plymouth – the oldest town in Massachusetts – has an incredible 2,685 unoccupied plots of taxable land. Meanwhile, Cambridge – a city nearly twice as populous as Plymouth – has just 150. If you know anything about Cambridge and Plymouth, this shouldn’t be surprising. Plymouth is a sprawling coastal suburb with a small, historic downtown. Cambridge is a densely populated urban hub of innovative start-ups, world-class universities, and young professionals with close proximity to Boston.   In creating new development, knocking down trees is a lot easier than knocking down old buildings, and redeveloping old buildings to fit modern uses is especially difficult when there are many other occupied buildings nearby. These realities are clearly reflected in a nationwide pattern […]

Long-term decline in area Catholic high school enrollment is likely to continue

Over a dozen Catholic schools affiliated with the Archdiocese of Boston are governed by independent boards of trustees. Most of these schools offer programs to students in grades 9-12 (Figure 1). However, as private schools compete to attract talented students and, increasingly, traditional and charter public schools do the same, many Catholic schools are struggling to boost enrollment. Catholic school closings in Massachusetts have received significant media attention, but even those that have stayed open are challenged to generate sufficient tuition revenue and donations. With financial pressure to pay teachers, improve the infrastructure of aging buildings, and update technology and lab equipment, many parochial schools face major long-term obstacles.   Figure 1: Boston Archdiocese-affiliated co-ed high schools and the grade […]

Many Massachusetts towns choosing to forego marijuana tax revenue

Local officials, health advocates, and neighborhood group leaders in Massachusetts have long been wary of July 1st, 2018, the day marijuana enterprises will begin selling their products statewide. Drug deals will take place over retail countertops, not in back alleys. Home cultivators will be subject to safety inspections, not arrests.   That is true, of course, unless your local government has anything to say about it. As reported by The Boston Globe in March, 130 out of 351 Massachusetts cities and towns have imposed moratoriums on marijuana establishments, essentially banning them until local governments can find a more effective way to regulate the industry (Figure 1). At least 59 more municipalities have banned marijuana enterprises indefinitely. Despite passing question #4 […]

The role of old industrial districts in residential suburbs

The City of Waltham was once an aging mill town. Its flagship industrial corporation, the Waltham Watch Company, closed in 1957. The 1970s and 80s saw a decline in the industrial sector for the region as a whole.   Then, the tech companies came. Waltham has recently become a regional hub for biopharmaceuticals and therapeutic science alongside Cambridge. The western edge of the city is home to a momentous number of industrial firms that hug several bends in Interstate 95, towering over the Cambridge Reservoir.   All the same, Waltham’s proximity to Boston gives its revitalization a different flavor than that of, say, Worcester or Lowell. As regional urban centers, Worcester and Lowell demand more diverse, service-based economies. Waltham retains […]

Education spending influences demographic trends at even the smallest scale

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council has a habit of solving identity crises for Massachusetts towns. Operating chiefly in Greater Boston, the MAPC uses 5 broad “community types” (and 9 subtypes) to classify municipalities statewide based on criteria such as housing density, proximity to Boston, historical character, and capacity to develop further.   All of this information is readily visible on Pioneer Institute’s MassAnalysis database, which provides an interactive map of the MAPC community subtypes under the Metrics tab (Figure 1).         Figure 1:   The type “inner core,” further divided into “metropolitan core communities” and “streetcar suburbs” is the only MAPC community type that is geographically contiguous. That is, inner core communities are always adjacent to at least one […]

Can Cape Cod’s economy rely on tourism forever?

Cape Cod’s character has long been dependent on the season. As the leaves change colors in October and November, bustling summer colonies quickly transform into sleepy New England towns. This dichotomy has heightened in recent decades, and depopulation in the region has raised concerns about the economic sustainability of the Cape and the well-being of its all-season residents.   Barnstable County’s year-round population has generally declined since around 2003, stabilizing only very recently. Even then, there’s reason to believe that future population trends on the Cape (and throughout Massachusetts) are highly dependent on economic conditions. This insight may prove daunting for towns that are heavily reliant on a single industry: tourism, in the Cape’s case.   Furthermore, aging populations have […]