Disruptive MBTA service grates on businesses
For four weeks, businesses around the Boston area have been adjusting hours, rescheduling meetings, and telling employees to work from home. Now they are wondering how much more disruption they can take, as the slow thaw from record snowfall threatens to keep the region's transportation systems frozen in a state of gridlock and uncertainty for the foreseeable future.
A drudge in fair weather, the daily commute has become so difficult that companies don't know when their staffs will show up for work, or how productive they will be. And following the MBTA's projection that a return to full service could be a month off, patience is beginning to melt away.
"It is pretty basic: For our economy to succeed, Massachusetts companies need their employees to be able to get to and from work, and their customers to be able to be out and about conducting business," said Jesse Mermell, executive director of the Alliance for Business Leadership, an association of executives that focuses on civic issues.
On a normal weekday, riders take about 1.3 million trips on the region's buses, subways, and commuter trains, but Wednesday's frigid morning temperatures brought a fresh round of delays — some lasting an hour or longer, without warning — and partial closures on the subway. Governor Charlie Baker said he was "done with excuses" after meeting with officials from Keolis Commuter Services, the French company that operates the commuter rail system.
Meanwhile, the region's roads remained clogged by snowbanks and an influx of drivers who would normally take the T, despite a parking ban that continued in Boston until 6 p.m. The result was another day in which commute times doubled for many of the 1.8 million people who work in Metro Boston.
Paul Guzzi, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, described the business community's collective sentiment as "frustration bordering on disgust."
Rick Dimino, chief executive of A Better City, an organization of business leaders, said, "the notion that it's going to take 30 days to get the T back to normal operations is, frankly, unacceptable."
The economic impact of transit dysfunction is difficult to calculate, but IHS Global Insight, an economic forecasting firm in Lexington, estimates that a single day when roads are impassable and businesses are closed costs the state $265 million in lost productivity.
While restaurants and retailers were among the first to take hits when a series of winter storms began pummeling the region in late January, companies in service industries are feeling strained, too.
"We are a software consultancy, and even though we can do most of our work remotely, there are still important business development needs that require us to be in the office," said Brian Cardarella, chief executive of DockYard Inc. in Boston.
Executives at other businesses shared similar frustrations, saying they can function with employees telecommuting on occasion, but another few weeks without full attendance will hamper operations and potentially harm their corporate reputations.
David Frankel, managing partner at the Cambridge venture capital firm Founder Collective, said canceling business trips and turning meetings into video conferences have made his team slower to pull the trigger on prospective investments.
"Face-to-face is much better for high-stakes decision making," he said.
Even HourlyNerd, a company that offers virtual business consulting from its headquarters downtown, is growing weary of e-mails and phone calls and is considering paying for private shuttles to bring some of its 38 workers into the office.
"What we're trying to figure out for our folks on the Green Line is whether something like Bridj or Uber would work," said chief executive Rob Biederman.
On train platforms throughout the MBTA's system Wednesday, exasperated commuters said the aggravation of shutdowns and delays is giving way to a broader worry about job performance.
At Davis Station in Somerville, Todd Shafer ran down the stairs to the platform just in time for the doors of an inbound Red Line train to close in his face. He threw up his hands in resignation, then turned to check a display that usually counts down the minutes until the next departure.
It was blank.
"We can't go on like this forever," said the 42-year-old architect. "We work with consultants and architecture firms outside of Boston who start their days much earlier. This puts a real strain on things."
In West Newton, the commuter rail station was nearly empty by 9 a.m. Wednesday — not because the trains were running on time and sweeping passengers off to work.
Instead, with a sign warning trains were running 45 minutes to an hour late, one would-be rider after another simply gave up waiting and left; some said they would try to drive to work or catch a bus, but others went home.
The few who stayed to wait in the cold said they had little choice.
"I have to be there today because we're going over some important metrics, and it's easier to talk about this stuff in person," said Matt Fiorentino, vice president of marketing at Mustbin, a tech startup in Downtown Crossing.
He'd used his smartphone to check for delays on his walk to the station, but none were posted online.
"My biggest issue is we just don't know most of the time when the train's going to come," Fiorentino said. "If it's an extra hour, that's fine. I can work an extra hour at home in the morning. The uncertainty is the worst part."
Bob Boudreau, chief executive at the talent recruiter WinterWyman, said the other big blow — one that's hard to measure — has been to workforce morale. Last year, his company invested in a remote-access system that allows employees in the Boston and Waltham offices do their jobs anywhere, but it can't replace the personal dynamics that normally help pass the time during a workday.
“I tell our staff to focus on what you can control, but it does wear on you,” Boudreau conceded. “It’s depressing.”