Two years ago, Jim O’Leary lost his bid to continue running the MBTA’s commuter railroad. But that hasn’t stopped him from expanding his transit empire. Instead of worrying about the Rockport or Franklin lines, the former Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad chairman will turn his attention to the Purple Line — the one coming to the suburbs outside the nation’s capital. His Boston firm, Alternate Concepts Inc., is on the team that just won the right to build and run a 16-mile light-rail line in Maryland.
ACI’s partners include Fluor Corp. of Texas, Meridiam of France, and the Spanish train manufacturer CAF. Alternate Concepts will help run the trains, under a contract similar to what it has in Denver for the soon-to-be-completed extension of light rail to that city’s airport.
O’Leary’s firm is already involved with transit lines in Phoenix and Puerto Rico. But this contract marks his first big win since the Mass. Bay team lost the Boston-area commuter rail contract about two years ago to Keolis Commuter Services.
To win the Maryland job, the ACI team went up against familiar faces: Keolis was there, and so was Veolia, ACI’s former partner at MBCR.
O’Leary, 67, still sounds nostalgic about that lost Boston contract. His firm still runs shuttle buses for the Massachusetts Port Authority and the Longwood Medical Area. But he misses running the commuter railroad here and wonders how it might run more effectively if his firm was still at the controls.
“It’s a little bit ironic that in my hometown I’m not able to do any [rail] work,” O’Leary says. “But elsewhere, we’ve been very successful.”
Private sector’s aid keeps startup program alive
As a venture capitalist, Jeff Bussgang knows a thing or two about making magic happen on a shoestring budget. Case in point: the success of an entrepreneurship program for immigrants at UMass Boston.
In its first year, the program has helped 10 entrepreneurs remain in the United States. Collectively, their startups have raised $50 million in VC funding and employ nearly 140 people, according to the University of Massachusetts Boston.
But the program almost didn’t happen when Governor Charlie Baker eliminated $1 million in funding for it in February 2015.
Bussgang, a general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners, had conceived of the program and had been its biggest advocate, seeing it as a way for promising foreign-born entrepreneurs to avoid the federal caps on H1-B visas and stay in the United States.
Bussgang made his case to Baker’s top economic chief, Jay Ash, that the program could be revived, possibly with less money. So Baker put aside as much as $100,000 in this fiscal year’s state budget and challenged the private sector to match it.
So far, two companies have. Silicon Valley Bank pledged $30,000, and last week the law firm Goodwin Procter said it would give $15,000. The Partnership for a New American Economy has committed $15,000.
Bill Brah, head of UMass Boston’s Venture Development Center, says that money is coming in handy now. The initial round of state funding for the entrepreneurship program, $60,000, just ran out, and Brah has yet to receive the new funds from the current appropriation.
Despite the delay, Bussgang says Baker’s commitment was a key source of legitimacy, giving the green light to UMass to launch the program and helping to attract the private-sector sponsors.
Bussgang and Brad Feld, a Colorado venture capitalist, last year launched a nonprofit to replicate this program in other states.
Brah says the money goes toward legal fees related to obtaining visas and to pay the wages of the entrepreneurs, who work eight hours a week at UMass Boston.
“The reason it’s been able to thrive is that Bill and I have operated this like a startup,” Bussgang says. “We’re scrappy!”
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