Fall 2014

Fall 2014

Guest workers

Comprehensive immigration reform is a long-shot, but a Republican takeover of the Senate could mean more visas for Massachusetts.

most of the attention on the immigration bill that is now foundering in Congress is on the 11 million or so immigrants who live in this country without the government’s permission. The bill the Senate passed last year—the focus of the debate on so-called comprehensive immigration reform in Washington—would provide them with an arduous pathway to citizenship, a pathway that many Democrats view as the most crucial aspect of the legislation. Most Republicans, however, oppose the pathway.

For Massachusetts, though, the pathway debate is not as important as it is elsewhere in the country. The state has between 100,000 and 200,000 illegal immigrants, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, placing the Bay State well behind the country’s leaders: California, Florida, New York, and Texas.

But Massachusetts is among the leading states in welcoming guest workers each year, immigrants who come to work on temporary visas, then return to their home countries. And the good news for Massachusetts employers is that whatever happens to the Senate bill—and it’s almost certain now that it will not be enacted this year— there’s a decent chance that Congress could return in 2015, with a new Republican majority in both the House and Senate, and enact a scaled-back immigration bill that increases guest worker visas.

“If Republicans retake the Senate, I can see both chambers passing bills that would include lots of guest workers,” says Mark Krikorian, who leads the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank. “It would be loaded with guest workers.”

There are some potential roadblocks. First and foremost is Democrats’ willingness to go along. President Obama would have to sign the bill and he and congressional Democrats might not be willing to increase guest worker visas if Republicans refuse to do anything to help the illegal immigrants already in the country. Coupling the issues of guest worker visas and illegal immigrants has been a key tenet of their comprehensive approach.

Even if the Democrats lose their Senate majority, they could block any bill next year if they stick together. Meanwhile, there are a few high-placed Republicans who could put up roadblocks, including Charles Grassley, the Iowa senator who would chair the Senate Judiciary Committee if Republicans take the Senate. He’s a longtime critic of the guest visa program for high-tech workers.

But there are good reasons to think a guest worker bill could have legs. Most Republicans are eager to help American companies, but don’t want to give citizenship to people here illegally. Guest worker legislation fits the bill. Republicans can pass whatever they want in the House with their majority there; in the Senate, all a Republican majority will need is a few Democratic defections.

And Democrats have hinted they might be willing to compromise on the comprehensive approach to immigration reform that’s now been bandied about on Capitol Hill for a decade, with little to show for it. Earlier this year, President Obama told CNN that he was flexible on immigration and might not insist that illegal immigrants be placed immediately on a path to citizenship if Republicans were willing to give undocumented workers something short of it, such as work permits, and not ban them from ever pursuing citizenship.

If Obama is willing to make a deal with Republicans, it will be difficult for congressional Democrats and labor unions to say no. After all, they signed off on the Senate bill that passed last year, which would have increased the number of H-1B high-tech visas from 65,000 a year, with additional visas available to foreign graduate students studying in the United States, to a figure between 115,000 and 180,000, depending on the needs of the market. The bill also would have allowed foreigners who obtain doctoral degrees in science, technology, or engineering to apply immediately for permanent residence, allowing them to stay in the country indefinitely and apply to become citizens. And the bill would have increased the number of unskilled, seasonal H-2B visas for hotel, resort, and restaurant employees by exempting workers who come back year after year from the current cap of 66,000.

According to Labor Department statistics, Massachusetts ranks high among the states for hosting both high-tech guest workers and unskilled seasonal ones. This year, state employers brought 3,032 unskilled, seasonal workers on H-2B visas into the country, more than 41 other states. Massachusetts was eighth in the number of high-tech jobs certified by the Labor Department with 27,311.

Though the Labor Department slashed the number of guest workers it would allow to enter the country following the 2008 financial crisis, the numbers have been creeping back up. In 2007, the department certified 5,863 seasonal work positions and 75,364 high-tech positions for Massachusetts, though not all those jobs were filled because of the nationwide cap.

Labor unions wonder why companies insist they need the visas, since the unemployment rate remains high. In fact, only about half of high school and college students, the type of people well suited for unskilled seasonal work, are employed, near the record low. At the same time, a July report by the Census Bureau found that three in four Americans who graduate from college with a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math did not take a job in a related field.

Even so, the unions haven’t pressed the issue and have tried to trade increases in guest worker visas for other priorities, such as more green cards for immigrants who might become citizens and then join unions.

“In each of these cases, both for the high-tech workers and the seasonal ones, there’s no one organized to oppose it,” says Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington.

In exchange for their support for last year’s Senate bill, unions did secure language in the legislation requiring employers to first try to hire American workers and to pay their guest workers the prevailing wage for their occupations. Eugenio Villasante, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union in Boston, says unions took the best deal they could get. “There’s such a need for reform to allow people who’ve been here for years to live in peace and continue working that unions were willing to compromise on guest workers,” he says.

In 2012, the House passed a bill that would have increased the availability of green cards for foreigners studying science, technology, engineering, and math in the United States. Last year the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill to increase the annual cap on the H-1B high tech visas beyond where the Senate’s immigration bill would go, to 235,000. Neither advanced because Senate Democrats insisted on their more comprehensive approach.

Massachusetts employers argue that there simply are not enough Americans applying for the jobs they have. Paul Sacco, a lobbyist for the hotel industry in Massachusetts, says Americans don’t want to work in menial jobs anymore. He says hoteliers in the state might have to close without guest workers. “What I have observed is that people are more educated and they are less inclined to do this type of work.” he says.

Bob Luz, who leads the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, says the size of the tourist influx to resort areas is now so much larger than in decades past that there just aren’t enough people to fill restaurant jobs in the high season.

Better pay might make a difference, but employers have fought hard to limit increases, which are set by the Labor Department. When the department tried to increase pay for seasonal guest workers last year, employers successfully fought back. Led by the Edgartown hotelier Island Holdings, which operates the beachside Winnetu Inn Resort, they protested at the Labor Department’s Board of Alien Labor Certification Appeals that the wage increase—nearly 24 percent in the case of Island Holdings’ housekeepers—would have caused some of them to shut down. The board agreed, forcing the Labor Department to agree to more specific rules about when it can raise guest worker pay.

Meanwhile, employers have the upper hand in convincing lawmakers of the need for more H-1B technology visas. Todd Schulte, the executive director of Fwd.us, a group formed by Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg to rally support for H-1B visas, says it’s foolish for lawmakers to say no. “We’re saying to educated people, ‘Go start the next Silicon Valley, but don’t do it here.’”

It’s a powerful argument that could resonate in 2015 if Obama finds himself dealing with a Republican Congress. Instead of Democrats trying to convince Republicans to do something about illegal immigrants, it will be Republicans trying to convince Democrats to accept an immigration bill that doesn’t go nearly as far as they would like, while also assuaging their own conservative supporters that any increases in guest workers are tied to tougher border enforcement. If enough compromises are made, it could work.

Tracking student migration

Massachusetts is a winner under the Regional Student Program, while New Hampshire is a loser

a program set up to provide more educational opportunity for New England college students is proving to be a brain gain for some states and a brain drain for others.

Massachusetts and Maine are big winners, while New Hampshire and Connecticut are losing more students than they’re taking in. For Vermont and Rhode Island, the program is largely a wash.

The Regional Students Program allows a student in New England to attend a public university anywhere in the region at a discount off of the standard out-of-state tuition rate as long as the academic program the student is pursuing is not available in his or her home state. A separate but related program allows students who live in one state but are in close proximity to a school in another state to attend the out-of-state school at the discounted rate. For that program, there are fewer restrictions on the academic program being pursued.

During the last school year, 9,533 students participated in the two programs and more than half of them attended schools in Massachusetts. Overall, state schools in Massachusetts attracted 4,935 students from other New England states, while 2,430 Bay State residents attended state schools elsewhere in the region.

Within Massachusetts, community colleges attracted 2,504 students from out of state who were participating in the program. Another 1,369 ended up at state universities and 1,062 attended one of the campuses in the UMass system. Northern Essex Community College, with campuses in Lawrence and Haverhill, was the biggest winner overall, attracting 1,160 students from other states. UMass Lowell was second, pulling in 790 students.

New Hampshire experienced the largest brain drain of any New England state, with 809 students coming into the state and 3,176 leaving to attend schools in other states. More than half of the students leaving New Hampshire — 2,633 — ended up at public schools in Massachusetts.

Connecticut also was a net loser, importing 1,018 students from other New England states and exporting 1,660 of its own residents. Of the students leaving Connecticut, 974 — nearly 60 percent — came to Massachusetts.

The Regional Students Program does not capture all student migration within the region, but it provides some insight into the potential strengths and weaknesses of the various state university programs. Within the regional program, the number of students moving between states has steadily increased over the last decade, but the pattern of student movement between states has remained fairly steady.

New Hampshire policymakers are worried about that pattern. A recent study issued by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies reported that, if current enrollment trends continue, the number of degrees issued to state residents could start declining by 2025. The report said a falloff in state graduates could hinder the state’s future economic growth.

“As the state’s population ages in coming years, developing a highly skilled, flexible workforce will be essential to ensuring continued economic prosperity and competitive advantage,” the report said.

The same report also identified a possible correlation between declining enrollment and increasing tuition rates. On that score, New Hampshire faces real problems. After funding for the New Hampshire higher education system was slashed in 2011, the University of New Hampshire raised tuition and fees for state residents to a level that ranks the school among the highest in the country, on a par with the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State University. New Hampshire recently instituted a tuition freeze to halt that trend, but there’s been no downturn in rates.

New Hampshire doesn’t fare well in most regional price comparisons between public universities. For a student participating in the Regional Student Program, the annual tuition to the University of New Hampshire is $26,805, well above the $15,457 that UMass Amherst charges, a figure that’s even less than the $16,552 in-state rate that the University of New Hampshire charges.

UMass Lowell benefits from the Regional Student Program because it is close to border towns such as Nashua and Pelham and also because it targets New Hampshire students. The school’s staff actively looks for students eligible for the regional and proximity programs, going to school fairs and hockey games to make the case. “Southern New Hampshire has always been a principal market,” says Kerri Johnston, the director of undergraduate enrollment at UMass Lowell.

Fall 2014 Editor’s note

Names and faces

a former editor of mine often used to remind me that names sell newspapers. What he meant was that people like to read about interesting people. At CommonWealth, we sometimes forget that adage, focused as we are on issues of policy. But we didn’t forget with this issue; it’s full of stories about some of the state’s most interesting people.

Our cover story is about Stan Rosenberg, a long-time Senate insider who is poised to take over as Senate president in January when Therese Murray leaves office. Rosenberg will instantly become one of the three most powerful people on Beacon Hill, and Michael Jonas’s story sheds some light on who he is and how he might wield power. I say some light because Rosenberg’s politics are not easy to categorize. He may live in the liberal bastion of Amherst, but it’s hard to say whether he really is a hard-core liberal. For example, he favors a graduated income tax, but he also brokered the passage of the state’s gaming legislation.

Ralph Whitehead, a University of Massachusetts Amherst journalism professor and longtime Rosenberg confidant, says the senator is not your typical Beacon Hill power broker. “An openly gay, Jewish guy from a college town in the western part of the state. Gee, sounds like a standard Massa-chusetts Senate president,” he says.

Gov. Deval Patrick sits down with Jack Sullivan and talks about what he’s learned the last eight years in office. It’s an interesting discussion with one of the more skillful politicians in the country. He’s still as cagey as ever (he would only say that he voted for the Democrat in the three-way Democratic primary for governor), but his thoughts on race, impatience with government bureaucracy, and the relationships he developed with his predecessors in the Corner Office, most of whom are Republicans, are fascinating.

John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Globe, and, until May, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, wouldn’t talk to me about his decision to sell the newspaper in New England’s second-largest city. Henry had promised T&G employees and residents of Worcester that he would find a local buyer for the paper and, if one couldn’t be found, keep it himself. But he went back on that pledge, cutting a quarter of the newspaper’s staff and selling to the Halifax Media Group of Daytona Beach, Florida, which may be the antithesis of a local buyer. Tim Murray, the former lieutenant governor and now head of the Worcester Chamber of Commerce, summed up local reaction well: “The way it was handled was bush league.”

John Fish, the emerging leader of the state’s business community, argues passionately that we should explore bringing the Summer Olympics to Boston. The construction executive’s argument is heavy on inspiration and short on facts and figures, but it makes the case that it’s time for Bostonians (and, presumably, the rest of Massachusetts) to start thinking big. A quartet of young turks (Chris Dempsey, Liam Kerr, Kelley Gossett Phillips, and Conor Yunits) make the opposite argument just as strongly. They say it’s time to think smart and leave the Olympics boondoggle to others.

Finally, there is Gabrielle Gurley’s One on One conversation with Mike Firestone. Who’s that, you say? He is an emerging superstar political operative, the mastermind behind Maura Healey’s upset win in the Democratic primary for attorney general, and someone who has played similar roles in the upstart campaigns of US Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, and Gov. Patrick. Indeed, he has such a good track record of turning political unknowns and outsiders into elected officials that his world is coming full circle. During the primary race for attorney general, Patrick endorsed Healey’s opponent, former state senator Warren Tolman. Firestone didn’t miss a beat; the campaign issued a statement calling the endorsement by the governor (Firestone’s old boss) a backroom deal designed to protect the “Beacon Hill club.”

Boston’s grass roots

Jim Vrabel offers a rich history of community organizing in Boston told through the voices of the activists of the 1960s and 1970s who helped shape the city

A People’s History of the New Boston
By Jim Vrabel
Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press
288 pages

history is replete with the stories of the mighty and powerful. Jim Vrabel’s latest book, A People’s History of the New Boston, tells another story. Vrabel, a former newspaper reporter and longtime community activist who has worked for Mayor Ray Flynn, the Boston School Committee, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, is also a quintessential historian and sets out to give all those who have pushed at power from the outside their due.

More than 40 years ago, Stephan Thernstrom followed a similar impulse in The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880–1970. “A study of the present that neglects the processes of change by which the present was created is necessarily superficial,” wrote Thernstrom.

Vrabel drills deep into the processes of change that help explain how Boston became the city it is today. He does so by drawing on more than a decade of personal interviews with some 100 past and current community activists to paint a portrait of the transition from the Old Boston to the New Boston. While the term “New Boston” has more recently come to describe the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the city and its political leadership, it also refers to the efforts started in the late 1940s to remake the city through big development projects. Through the book’s 22 chapters, Vrabel lets readers hear directly the voices of people as they tried to salvage their neighborhoods from the architects of that New Boston. He gives voice to those activists who worked hard every day and were ignored at City Hall and the State House until they organized and fought back.

Interspersed with meticulously researched archival materials that document the actions of politicians, especially mayors and other government officials, most notably those at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Vrabel clearly shows the neglect, abuse, and disdain demonstrated by many in the 1960s and 1970s toward the activists trying to protect and preserve their neighborhoods. In writing about the city’s leaders, he sets out to document “how willing they were to listen to the people of Boston and to share power with them.” His conclusion? Most of them weren’t interested.

Eighteen of the 22 chapters tell the story, in a case study methodology, of a particular community struggle against powerful forces. Vrabel skillfully includes profiles of the 18 neighborhoods of Boston while chronicling an issue, protest, or controversy in each one of them. He also suggests noteworthy works by other authors that more fully examine a controversy or community conflict he describes.

A People’s History of the New Boston is a must-read for a new generation of community activists, politicians, government officials, students of cities, and the media. The book recognizes the role neighborhood organizing can play in changing the course of history and suggests some of the reasons there may have been a decline in activism in Boston beginning in the 1980s.

Vrabel traces the rise in Boston of what sociologist Harvey Molotch calls the “growth machine,” which determines who gets what in a city. In Boston, the growth machine era coincided with the reigns of Mayors John Hynes, John Collins, and Kevin White. Much of the energy of the growth machine coalition, led by business elites, real estate developers, labor organizations, the local media, and supported by politicians, was devoted to development issues, including pursuit of urban renewal projects like the razing of the old West End. These have been among the most contentious battles in modern Boston history. The planning agency of the city, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, was the arm of government to implement the growth machine policies of urban renewal that triggered a militant response by the people in Boston’s neighborhoods.

Vrabel points to the limited, but still notable, successes that community activists had in slowing the bulldozers, if not always stopping them completely. This was the case in each story Vrabel details: the destruction of the West End and New York streets neighborhood of the South End; the expansion of Logan Airport in East Boston; Harvard University’s land grab in Mission Hill; and the real-estate-fueled destruction of Mattapan by the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group. In each case, the growth machine won much of what it was seeking to accomplish, making millions of dollars in profits and destroying the social fabric of Boston’s neighborhoods in the process. The early losses taught other neighborhoods the consequences if they were not organized.

Neighborhood activism can be credited for sparing much of Charlestown and South Boston from the urban renewal bulldozers, and the neighborhoods of Roxbury, the South End, and Jamaica Plan ultimately won a reprieve by stopping the I-95 highway project, but not before thousands of homes were destroyed in the process. The book shows that the determinants of Boston’s development policies are largely political.

Boston’s public school segregation and desegregation get significant attention. Both the protest movement to improve the schools led by black parents and organizations, and the movement led by white politicians to stop busing as a school integration strategy are highlighted. Vrabel characterizes US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s 1974 order — that the city’s school committee had willfully engaged in discriminatory policies — as the right finding, but says it was unfortunately paired with the ill-conceived remedy of busing thousands of school kids across the city. It is a widely shared opinion that busing was an abject failure in Boston, and Vrabel captures the highly charged sentiments on all sides of the issue.

Vrabel also pays important attention to the history of organizing around preserving and building affordable housing in Boston. He provides a case study of the successful effort by a group of Puerto Rican activists in the South End to transform a vacant piece of land known as Parcel 19 into Villa Victoria, a neighborhood of affordable housing modeled on a village in Puerto Rico. He examines the history of public housing in Boston and efforts by thousands of poor tenants to live in safe and sanitary housing, and the important role played by tenant leader Doris Bunte, who went on to serve as administrator of the Boston Housing Authority. In analyzing the tenant movement in the city, and the battle over rent control, Vrabel again demonstrates that many of the victories were short-lived. The real estate interests captured the local politicians through hefty campaign contributions and gutted the hard-fought gains achieved through rent control in Boston, forcing many low-income residents from neighborhoods that were fast becoming gentrified.
The determinants of Boston’s developments are largely political.
While Vrabel’s book focuses mainly on the activism of the 1960s and 1970s, he does devote a later chapter to the 1983 mayoral election and the repudiation of Kevin White’s growth machine coalition in the selection of Mel King and Ray Flynn as the two mayoral finalists. Vrabel notes that the 1983 final election that Flynn won had the highest turnout — 70 percent — of any mayoral election since 1949, when James Michael Curley was ousted by John Hynes and the growth machine spearheaded by West End developer Jerome Rappaport.

Vrabel highlights Flynn’s redistributive and managed growth policies, including linkage, a tax on downtown commercial development to fund affordable housing and job training; the expansion of the Boston Residents Jobs Policy guaranteeing construction jobs for Boston residents, minorities and women; the granting of eminent domain powers to a Roxbury redevelopment nonprofit; and the largest production of affordable housing for a city its size, much of it built by community development corporations.

Vrabel suggests that Boston today is missing “that spirit of activism and protest that contributed so much to make the New Boston better.” This is a provocative perspective, and he suggests several possible reasons: Kevin White’s deft political machine; Ray Flynn’s hiring of lots of the community activists; Tom Menino’s autocratic management of dissent.

Mel King suggests that that the outrage of the 1960s and 1970s is gone. While some of the outrage may be gone, there are many people organizing in Boston every day to make Boston better. Community Labor United is combining the power of community-based organizations and labor unions. The Youth Jobs Coalition organizes more than 1,000 youth each year to march to the State House and engage their legislators to fight for jobs and economic opportunity. Grass roots activism was also evident in the recent minimum wage and living wage campaigns. Activism may be different today, but it still exists vibrantly across Boston.

The book closes by taking a look at the city today. Vrabel calls Boston’s story a “tale of two cities,” and cites a 2009 Boston Foundation report showing that income inequality in Boston is among the worst of any city in the country. The process of change by which the present was created, both in Vrabel’s study of the 1960s and 1970s, and the decades since, makes one wonder to what degree the policies of recent decades have both widened inequality and dampened activism. Perhaps the city is ripe for a new generation of activists to help change the course of Boston’s history for the better.

Don Gillis was the director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighbor-hood Services and the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation under Mayor Flynn. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in urban sociology and sociology of education at Boston University.

Fall 2014 correspondence and updates

UMass endowment story off mark

CommonWealth Magazine was correct in pointing out that the University of Massachusetts endowment has grown dramatically, from $38.5 million in 1995 to today’s nearly $750 million. But the article’s premise that the university’s investment strategy has been overly conservative in today’s financial markets defies the facts and misses what is truly a success story.

Despite significant volatility in the financial markets, UMass achieved an average gain of 3.9 percent for the five-year period ending in 2013, virtually matching the national average of 4 percent gain. Contrary to CommonWealth’s story, in each of those years except 2011 and 2013, the university’s endowment return was actually above — not below — the national average for all endowments.

The article also erroneously states that UMass has kept the endowment out of such investments as emerging stocks and hedge funds (and CommonWealth’s own chart accompanying the article actually shows that the UMass endowment had 26 percent of its assets invested in alternative investments, which are largely hedge fund holdings). The UMass endowment also had 4.2 percent of its assets in emerging market equities as of June 30, 2013.

We look forward to the investment opportunities afforded by the growth in our endowment, particularly with respect to top-tier private equity and venture capital funds for which larger sums are required. The university and the UMass Foundation remain committed to sound investment management practices that balance the need and desire for a significant return on investment against the equally important need to protect endowment gifts and the financial future of the institution.

To do otherwise would be a dereliction of our fiduciary and moral responsibility to our donors, students, and faculty — as well as the entire Commonwealth, which relies on this premier public research university to produce scientific discovery and innovation while providing an affordable, high quality education.

Charles J. Pagnam
Executive vice president
UMass Foundation

Jack Sullivan responds

The wording of my story should have been more accurate. I reported that between 2009 and 2013, UMass had only one year — 2009 — where its investment performance exceeded the national average for all endowments and for endowments of similar size. Pagnam is correct that the performance of the UMass endowment exceeded the national average in 2009, 2010, and 2012, but it exceeded endowments of similar size only in 2009.

Pagnam cites the school’s five-year average of 3.9 percent as “virtually matching” the national average, but he rounds the national average down from 4.2 to 4 percent. Each percentage point represents more than $6 million for an endowment of UMass’s size, so a difference of 0.3 represents a difference of close to $2 million.

Contrary to Pagnam’s assertion that the story “erroneously states” the fund did not have investments in emerging markets and hedge funds, the story and the accompanying charts both state that it does. The point of the story is that UMass invested in those areas, just at a much smaller and slower rate than its cohorts.



The Boston Public School system is paying 115 tenured teachers not to teach this year, a roughly $10.1 million cost that officials hope will improve the quality of teaching in the city’s schools.

The numbers are in line with estimates made in a feature article this summer on the system’s new open hiring process, which sidesteps seniority and tenure rules and allows principals to hire whomever they want to fill open positions (“The hiring man,” Summer ’14).

Previously, hiring rules required that teaching spots be found for every tenured teacher, a process that often required principals to take tenured teachers they didn’t want.

Officials said the so-called excess teachers left over at the end of the hiring process will work as assistants to lead teachers. Most of them worked in elementary education and were assigned to 33 schools in groups of three.

Giant slayer

Mike Firestone, the 31-year-old campaign manager behind Maura Healey’s runaway win in the Democratic primary for attorney general, talks strategy.

You’ve guided the successful campaigns of newbie candidates such as Deval Patrick, Elizabeth Warren, Boston city councilor Michelle Wu, and now Maura Healey. What’s your secret? It’s all about doing the same direct, person-to-person voter contact that’s been done for 150 years in American campaigning, but doing it smarter. If Maura was going to be, let’s say, appearing at an event in the South Coast, we’d do door-knocking and phone calls into that community and work with our press team to maximize free media coverage in the area. We’d work over social media to engage, not just through Maura Healey on Facebook and Twitter, but with allies and supporters who live in those communities. We’d use our email list the same way.

What’s your get-out-the-vote strategy? You’ve got to be organized, have a clear plan, and be able to communicate that to a huge number of people.

How do you pick the candidates you’ll work with? I like smart, passionate progressives who are in it for the right reasons. I am a big champion for women candidates. I believe that our democracy is better when there are more perspectives involved, and, to do that, you have to have people who are willing to work on the campaigns. So I took a leave from law school to be part of the [Warren] campaign. When I graduated last year, I had some offers to go and do legal work, but I met Maura and I said to myself, she’s running for attorney general: that’s a lawyer.

You have a law degree and an undergraduate degree in history, both from Harvard. What sparked your interest in politics? My grandmother was a housing rights activist. She was a great believer in getting out there and speaking with people in her community, Allston-Brighton, which has had challenges with affordable housing and tenants’ rights. She would go door to door and she would take me along. I remember leafleting apartment buildings all around Commonwealth Avenue and Cleveland Circle, even when I was little. That’s really where I got my start.

Was Warren Tolman’s “unbecoming” comment the turning point in the Democratic primary race? I would really point to a couple of different moments. The first big one for us was that Maura nearly won the Democratic convention in Worcester in June, because she didn’t start with any base of support, even among grassroots activists. We focused laser-like on the delegates to the Democratic convention in the months before the event. So that was a big “wow!” The second was the response to our [Healey spinning a basketball] television ad. We didn’t have the money to run ads as long as our opponent did. But we thought that, if we could run two very strong weeks of television right when voters were starting to pay attention that were eye-catching and really conveyed the vibrancy of Maura’s personality and the strength of her experience, we would be in good shape.

After Healey’s big primary win, how do you keep up the momentum? The advice that I got when I started as a volunteer on campaigns and all the way up has been to run like you are 10 points down every day.

So what happened in the tiny Berkshire County town of Hinsdale, the only place outside metro Boston that Healey lost big? Man, I do not know. A lot of staff just want to go out there, meet those folks, and make our case more directly.

Updating his resume

Updating his resume

Deval Patrick looks back as he prepares for life after Beacon Hill

Photos by Mark Ostow

DESPITE EIGHT YEARS as governor and rampant speculation that he some day will run for president, Deval Patrick still thinks of himself as a kid from the South Side of Chicago. That self-image, in many ways, is the connecting thread that runs through the core of Patrick’s being. It has shaped his personal and political styles, his public and private relationships, his drive to succeed, his defensiveness over failure, his personality, and his will. He came virtually out of nowhere eight years ago; his name recognition was in single digits when he jumped into the Democratic race for governor against better-known and better-financed candidates such as then-Attorney General Tom Reilly. On January 8, Patrick, now one of the state’s most popular political figures, will walk down the Grand Staircase in front of the State House, departing as the first full two-term governor in a quarter century.

For Patrick, who is at once gregarious but very private, it’s hard to separate the personal from the political, though he rarely talks about the former. He came from a broken family, sometimes living on welfare, led by a single mother after his father abandoned him and his sister when they were young. Patrick and his sister slept in the same bedroom as their mother in a two-bedroom apartment they shared with his maternal grandparents. It may help explain why Patrick is so vocal and strident in his support for welfare benefits and a fierce proponent of letting families get and use their benefits with dignity.

As a 13-year-old, Patrick came to Milton Academy on a full scholarship, a chance to lift himself up from poverty and become the first in his family to go to college. Does it come as a surprise that he touts education as a central theme to economic advancement and that there’s not a second to waste?

“We have invested in education at historic levels, even when the bottom was falling out of everything else, not because you get an immediate return, but because, if you’re in the second grade, you don’t get to sit out the second grade until the recession is over,” he says passionately during our conversation. “Right now is your time.”

Unlike his friend and fellow South Sider, President Obama, Patrick is rarely pressed to wade into race-related topics, but he acknowledges his skin color is too obvious to ignore. Patrick recalls his early “ugly days” in Massachusetts during busing, when he was a teenager, first at Milton and then at Harvard. He remembers trips into the city where he was called “all kinds of things in all kinds of neighborhoods.” And he says he had to weigh that when he decided to run for governor in 2006.

His protectiveness of his wife and daughters is also a reflection of his upbringing, the need to rely on each other against outside forces. The pain is obvious when he talks about what his wife, Diane, went through in her fight with depression and the surprise when his chief of staff told him his daughter’s sexual orientation was news, months after she came out to her parents.

Patrick remains close-lipped about his future plans, quite possibly because he doesn’t know himself. He’s proud of his accomplishments as governor, says the right things about unfinished agendas, but doesn’t always agree with what some perceive as his or his administration’s failures.

On a sun-splashed last day of summer, we sat out on the third-floor balcony of the State House just outside his office, overlooking the staircase down which Patrick will take his final walk as governor. We sat outside because the weather was nice, but also because his office’s recently installed bullet-proof glass prevented the windows from being opened and the air conditioning was not working.

The following is an edited transcript of my conversation with the kid from the South Side of Chicago.

COMMONWEALTH: In eight years what’s changed more — you or Massachusetts?

GOV. PATRICK: Some of both. You know, we’re at a 25-year high in employment, first in the nation in so many things. We’ve got the litany: student achievement, healthcare coverage, veteran’s services, economic competitiveness, venture funding, entrepreneurial activity, you know the budget’s in great shape, got the highest bond rating in the history of the Commonwealth. I’m proud of that, and I thank all the people on the team and in the Legislature and in the general public and in the business community who have helped.

I think my own skin is thicker — because it better be or else. I mean my wife, who’s a very private person, and has been a reluctant First Lady — she’s been a fantastic first lady — but you know she struggled some with the experience at the beginning and has sorted out how to balance her own professional life and her privacy with the things she wants to do and can do to help. She is a news junkie and used to take everything so personally. I finally told her stop reading, just put it down (laughs), but she’s continued to read and it doesn’t quite get to her in the same way, and that’s good for both of us.

CW: She had some very private and challenging mental health issues in a very public manner. Your daughter’s sexual orientation became the basis for some news stories. But they never ran for office, you did.

PATRICK: Yeah, you know what, I have said to many, many candidates or would-be candidates and their spouses and families to think hard because your family gets dragged along for the ride whether you like it or not. You know my sister and brother-in-law had their lives nearly destroyed in the first campaign over a really vicious and completely groundless attack. And I still love them and they still love me, all of us are stronger for it, but frankly you don’t think it’s news. When Catherine came out, she told us one weekend in the summer and we had a family hug and went off and had a family picnic. And I didn’t think about it again until I happened to mention it to my chief of staff and he said — and I’m talking about months later — and he said “Governor, that’s news.” And I said that’s a private family matter. She’s not a candidate, she’s not a public person. And he said “No, no this is news and we need to manage it like news.” So live and learn.
I think my own skin is thicker — because it better be or else. My wife… has been a reluctant First Lady.
CW: Is that going to weigh on any decision for you to re-enter into politics after you leave office?

PATRICK: Oh yeah, sure, you know we’re all seasoned and tested and what’s that term, vetted? Making politics personal is a part of the political experience today and, sure, it’s a factor. It’s not the central factor, but it’s a factor.

CW: You’ve already gotten over one milestone, in that you’re the first black governor of Massachusetts…


CW: You are. You know the history of Massachusetts, you know the perception nationally of Massachusetts. What made you think back in 2006 that a black man from Chicago could be elected governor of Massachusetts?

PATRICK: Well, first of all, I thought about whether race would be a factor, but I also thought that the change we were offering, which is this notion of governing with a sense of generational responsibility, was something that a lot more people than me were hungry for. I knew I wasn’t going to get to be governor by waiting for the establishment to say it was okay or for the pundits to say there was a path and all that sort of thing. We don’t have a large enough African-American population in the Commonwealth for that to be its own sort of voting bloc, even presuming that the community was monolithic. I had folks both in the chattering classes and just regular old people saying it’s a long shot — you know you add to the lift by being black — but my experience in the Commonwealth, you know, I’ve experienced the ugly side. When I came, busing was hot and we were in the midst of all that. I’ve been called all kinds of things in all kinds of neighborhoods around the Commonwealth, and I’m sure I’ve been called things since I’ve been governor, too. But, overwhelmingly, I’ve been moved by how willing people are to listen to me or listen frankly to any candidate if the candidate is willing to listen to them.

CW: What do you think that your election and President Obama’s election, and re-election, frankly, for the both of you, say about the state of race relations both in Massachusetts and nationally?

PATRICK: Well, I don’t think it means we’re in a post-racial society. I think that there are still people who vote, and they say they vote, I’ve seen interviews of people saying they voted against the president because there shouldn’t be a black president and so forth, but we’ve seen the majority doesn’t agree with that and that’s a good thing. We are a better country, you know, and one big, big issue I have with the whole dialogue on race in America is that we don’t seem to be able to strike the balance in the same voice between acknowledging the extraordinary progress we have made, much of it in our lifetimes, and at the same time acknowledging how much work remains. Yet there are people who are in the one camp or the other and not willing to acknowledge both truths.

CW: Being governor, I would assume, is about on-the-job training. There’s not a course that you go to — How to be Governor 101. On top of that, you pretty much came out of nowhere eight years ago. Clearly you were pretty high up with the Justice Department, and you have some business background, but political and governance just weren’t on your resume. Was the job what you expected?

PATRICK: The job is full of surprises, some of it I expected and some of it actually was quite familiar. When you think about life in a big company, like Coca Cola or Texaco, there is very little that happens by edict. If you actually want to make stuff happen, you have to kind of persuade the middle management to, first of all, understand it and that takes time. I think governing, particularly the legislative part of the work, is slower than I’d like. I’m an impatient governor and impatient person and I have had to learn how to slow down and, you know, not to take my foot off of the gas but not to overwhelm the partners you need with stuff in order to get stuff done. That wasn’t obvious to me when I first came in. I think I’m a better governor today than I was yesterday, and I think I’ll be a better governor tomorrow than I was today. I continue to learn.

CW: What about your predecessors? You had the benefit when you first came in of having five living governors. Did you ever call any of them and ask for advice?

PATRICK: Yeah, actually they’ve been great. You don’t even have to pick up the phone for Mike Dukakis, because he’s calling all the time. He’s great, he’s so interested in good government and policy. We haven’t agreed on everything, but he’s been very involved. Less so Governor Romney because, of course, he was running for president, but in the transition and before the transition, he was always a gentlemen to me. Governor Swift told me something that was probably the most poignant insight, when she said it’s the loneliest job she’d ever had, and I get that now. And Governor Cellucci, God bless him, we played golf, just us, once a year in the summer for two or three years, and he suggested it the first summer, and it was marvelous, and we just let our hair down. He was a great, great guy, just a lovely person.

CW: There’s a perception that your relationship with the Legislature has been somewhat cool over the eight years. Do you agree with that and, if so, how would you have changed that?

PATRICK: No, I don’t agree with that. I’m not much of a back slapper and all that stuff, but if you look at the results, I think we’ve had a couple of the most productive legislative sessions in decades. We don’t agree on everything and sometimes the disagreements bubble out into public view. I will say that one thing that I observe about the experience as a relative newcomer is that much, much more emphasis is placed on the personal dynamics among the legislative leadership, between them and between the governor, than is probably pertinent. It makes for good print, maybe, but it’s not necessarily real. I mean, their job is difficult, too. And so when I say I’ve been learning to slow down, it’s not that our agenda has been any less ambitious, but I do know you have to give them the time to arrive at a decision that works for their body. And so I proposed a lot of things. They’ve given me, you know, 95 percent of what I’ve asked for. Rarely in the form I asked for it — do you know what I mean? — but they’ve given it to me.

CW: Such as the transportation bond bill?

PATRICK: Yeah, and that’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about in my own learning curve here, is to understand when you’ve won. And not feel like it’s got to be just the way you proposed it.

CW: Have you learned to take yes for an answer?

PATRICK: Yeah, I suppose so. I push hard.

CW: Governing is about long-term, but it’s also about short-term, it’s about what’s happening now. Do you think that you were able to meet those immediate needs?

PATRICK: I don’t think we got everything done as fast as either I wanted or, in some cases, the public wanted. But there are very immediate things, like responding to the Marathon attacks, a tornado in western Massachusetts, a water main break here in eastern Massachusetts that was supposed to deprive 2 million people of drinkable water for three or four months and we got it fixed in three days. I have begun to appreciate that the job is a combination of substance and performance art and, you know, I think I’m probably better at one than the other…

CW: Which one?

PATRICK: The substance, I think. I’ve been trying not to be so carried away by the pressure you get on the performance art side that I lose focus on the substance side.

CW: Polls show people think you haven’t handled recent problems as well as you could. Is there anything about any of the high-profile problems you wish you could have handled differently?

PATRICK: Well, what are you thinking of?

CW: Well, things such as the breakdown of the Health Connector, the Annie Dookhan scandal at the Massachusetts crime lab, and the IT problems at various agencies. Are those management issues or are they things that could pop up in any administration?

PATRICK: I wish for the next governor, whomever it is, they won’t have any unexpected mishaps, but I wouldn’t put money on it. And I don’t think there’s a single problem that gets solved by outrage. You know, you’ve got to put your head down and fix them. And we are fixing problems. In the case of the Connector, for example, it was interesting. We did what you often hear the business community say to do, which is privatize. We gave a private, well-respected, large company a contract to do the job and they did it terribly. The problem that had surfaced last year has been fixed, and we’re on a course to meet next year’s milestone a year ahead of time, in time for the open enrollment season. But that took a lot of work and focus and a great team and a lot more of my personal involvement than an IT project ought to take, but I think that’s how you solve problems. Annie Dookhan, we were the ones who found that problem. We haven’t gone around saying, by the way she was hired in the previous administration. We’re the ones who surfaced that and set about the hard work of fixing that problem. I thought you were going to ask about [Department of Children and Families.] That’s another, you know, big challenge. Interestingly, the issues at DCF have to do with insufficient staffing and out-of-date electronics, but that is not the thing that started the focus on DCF. It was losing that poor child, and that child was lost because individuals lied about what they were doing. And not only did that individual lie about it, but so did her supervisor and her supervisor’s supervisor. And all those people were fired right away. I didn’t have a public execution of the DCF commissioner at a time when our outside expert, and independent reviewer, was saying that it would further destabilize the agency. It didn’t make for good drama, but it made for better leadership. I told you earlier I’m impatient. I like for stuff to happen really quickly, but sometimes the issues are much more complicated and there is execution risk if you go in the direction that the mob is asking you to go in, and you’ve got to do it right, not just do it for show.

CW: One of the interesting things you just said about the IT problems at the Connector is that you got involved. And then you talked about both Annie Dookhan and DCF, how you got involved. Do you think you’ve been engaged as much as you needed to be?

PATRICK: Well, it’s a big state and there are 30,000 people who work in state government. It’s not possible for a governor to be personally involved in everything. We’ve had really, really good cabinet leadership and really good agency leadership, but things come up, they happen. It’s horrible that a child was lost at DCF but I’ll tell you what, it helped the Legislature to step up and give us the resources that we need to fix the underlying problem. That’s a really, really good thing. It’s horrible that the Connector website failed us, but the fact is not a single person lost their health insurance and we had workarounds so that people who needed health insurance thanks to the ACA [Affordable Care Act] got it. So we increased our already nation-leading level of insurance while we were fixing the inconvenience of a broken website. So yeah, I hope it matters when a governor is personally involved, but a governor can’t be personally involved in everything all the time in the same way that a CEO can’t be personally involved in every dimension of a $34 billion enterprise.

CW: Are you going to campaign against the casino repeal effort in November?

PATRICK: I mean every time I’ve been asked, I’ve said repealing it is a bad idea and unnecessary. This is hardly central to our growth strategy or economic strategy, but my view has been that if we’re going to expand gaming, there’s a right way and wrong way to do it, and the right way was in limited fashion with destination resort facilities rather than just a gambling hall. I think the bill itself is good. I think it’s worth preserving. I think we’re far enough along now so that with a very thoughtful implementation by the Gaming Commission, that it’d be a mistake to turn back. Every time I’m asked that, that’s what I say.

CW: You have been a major proponent of green initiatives in Massachusetts. Do you think that being the champion of it for the state has caused you to make mistakes in the implementation? Take Evergreen Solar for instance, or the controversy over whether or not there was too much pressure applied to NSTAR and National Grid as far as convincing them to buy power from Cape Wind.

PATRICK: Well, first of all, Evergreen Solar, what can you say, they don’t all work. But if you’re going to take a leadership role in a burgeoning industry, you can’t have a 100 percent success rate as the only acceptable success rate. We’re cleaner, our emissions are down, we’re No. 1 in the nation in energy efficiency, this is really, really, good stuff. And we have great partners now, not just around the country but around the world. You asked me about NSTAR and National Grid — they should take more! And they will. Forget about Cape Wind. The potential for the offshore blocks, the auctions for the offshore blocks south of Martha’s Vineyard are supposed to be in December, I think, and the projection from the US Department of Energy is that there’s enough wind energy there to supply the energy needs of half the households in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That’s huge. That’s huge. So we’ll be looking back at National Grid and NSTAR purchases of portions of Cape Wind in a few years and be thinking what was all the fuss about?

CW: You had said that you’re frustrated at times because things have not happened always the way that you’ve wanted them to, that there are some things that you didn’t get accomplished. What didn’t you get accomplished that you wish you had?

PATRICK: For all the talk about cutting taxes, the tax that needs to be cut is the property tax because it’s so fundamentally regressive. It’s really tough. You know the term house rich, cash poor? You know seniors may be sitting on a valuable piece of property, but their earning potential or earning reality may be different because they’re retired. Having to pay that property tax bill is pretty difficult. So cracking that code is not something that we’ve been able to do and that’s frustrating to me. There are others, but that’s one thing.
I knew I wasn’t going to get to be governor by waiting for the establishment to say it was okay.

CW: On the other side of the ledger, what singular thing have you accomplished in spite of opposition that’s now a part of either state law or policy that, even though there’s opposition, down the line you know it’s a good thing for the state. What would you stand by that you’ve done?

PATRICK: It’s interesting, the things that I feel that have been the highest impact accomplishments are ones where we arrived at the decision through collaboration, so I’m hesitating a little bit when you say in spite of opposition. I mean, when we started with the Achievement Gap Act, which I think is enormously important, we had the charter folks out in one field and we had the unions out in a different field, and we had the business community in a different place, and the educational establishment in still another place. Getting them all in the same place by doing more than simply saying everybody gets a little bit of what they want, but actually getting them to understand, agree on the nature of the problem we were trying to solve, and to have the focus be on the children instead of what was good for the adults, was huge. And we’ve seen the degree of innovation in our classrooms, all sorts of classrooms, really explode in the Commonwealth, by no means as much as I wish it could. But I’m really pleased with that and I’m pleased with the results. So I feel good about that.

Everybody is tired of the Big Dig because the tunnel works and we have a pretty park in downtown Boston, but the funding scheme for it was devastating for the long-term interests of the Commonwealth. You ask people outside of Greater Boston about the impact on their roads and bridges and so forth and they can point you to examples of neglect. So the support of the Legislature in the bonding we’ve been able to do and now with the indexed increase in the gas tax as a way to deal with that funding gap, and then maintenance and the upkeep gap, is huge. And of course now it’s being challenged on the ballot, and I hope that folks vote no on the question, because I think this is another example of how we serve our long-term interests.

CW: Speaking of the Big Dig and votes, who’d you vote for in the primary?

PATRICK: I voted for the Democrat.

CW: What are you going to do in January?

PATRICK: I’m going to find a job, something in the private sector. I’m not being cute with you when I say I don’t know what it is because the rules are such that you can’t really have many conversations while you’re in this job for fear of crossing some line.

CW: Do you have a resume?

PATRICK: I have a resume, yes. I have to update it.

CW: When’s the last time you updated it?

PATRICK: Oh man… Long time ago now… Long time ago.

CW: Will you add lieutenant governor to that seeing as you’ve been doing the job for about a year now?

PATRICK: I miss Tim [Murray], I really do. He was a great partner. It’s a funny job. In a way it’s the job whose substance depends entirely on the governor, in terms of how much you’re willing to share. And what I’ve found with Tim Murray was that we could so leverage the agenda by having him take real substance and run with it and he was incredible. The stuff that he did to repair relationships between state government and local government. The stuff he did around veterans services and military facilities, where we are now No. 1 in the nation. The stuff he did around the negotiation, vital negotiations, with CSX to acquire the rights of way for the rails, that’s what’s making possible not just the more frequent runs out to Worcester, but South Coast Rail, which is critical.

CW: Think that will stay on track?

PATRICK: It’s going to. It better. I mean, we’ve got a contract out now to finish the design now that we have a route that’s been approved, and we’ve done a lot of work already on bridges and rights of way, so we’re ahead of it. I hope, to close on moving the post office at South Station, because that has to happen in order to get more capacity there. But whether it stays on track is a lot up to the people of the South Coast and whether the next governor listens to the people of the South Coast. Previous governors have not. I have. Martha Coakley will.

CW: Do you think Charlie Baker will?

PATRICK: No, frankly, I don’t. And I don’t have any reason to believe, based on his record, that he will.

CW: You’ve gone from no, never when people have asked you about running for president to recently, with [WCVB’s] Janet Wu, saying it’s a maybe. What’s changed?

PATRICK: Actually, I’ve been saying the same thing all along. First of all, the amazing thing for me is, you know, I’m still a kid from the south side of Chicago. The notion that people put that kind of question to me and speculate about that sort of thing is mind-blowing, and humbling.

CW: There was another kid from the south side of Chicago who went into the White House…

PATRICK: I know that, I know that. But it’s not something I’ve always wanted to be. I just wanted to be governor, and I just wanted to be governor recently because I didn’t think we were meeting our generational responsibility and I’ve wanted to focus on that and this job until the very end. I didn’t run for governor in order to be something else. I like and I respect public life, although we were talking about some of the costs, personally and on the family and so on, and so I’m really careful about saying yeah, I’m in, it’s definitely happening. But then again, I’m really careful about saying no, I’m not, because I really respect the work and I think I’m not alone in wanting people who are in it for the right reasons. And that’s what reduces it to a maybe. But I have zero plans. I’m not going to be a candidate in 2016. I don’t see how that’s possible. The future is the future.

UMass system racking up patents

the university of massachusetts is emerging as a powerhouse research institution, ranking among the world’s elite in turning ideas into patents.

The five-campus UMass system received 57 patents in 2013, ranking it 37th in the world. In 2012, UMass ranked even higher, but received only 54 patents. The University of California was the top patent recipient both years, raking in 399 in 2013. MIT ranked second in 2013 with 281; Harvard had 69.

The annual rankings are compiled by the National Academy of Inventors, using US Patent Office data. The group counted every patent granted in 2013 where the University of Massachusetts is listed as the first assignee. Patents are typically filed when a researcher’s idea has the potential to be commercialized.

Most UMass patents are in the biological and life sciences, and come out of the Worcester-based medical school. The med school is a hub of RNA research. One RNA-related patent, issued to Jeanne B. Lawrence, is entitled “Nucleic acid silencing sequences.” According to Bill Rosenberg, who directs the UMass Office of Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property, the patent could lead to a new treatment for Down Syndrome.

The research that leads to patents is typically funded by grants. One of the biggest funders of biomedical research is the National Institutes of Health, which granted nearly $159 million to UMass in 2013, or about 6.6 percent of all NIH funding flowing into Massachusetts, which gets a large share of funding overall.

While many patents don’t yield profits for the university system, some do. Dr. Thomas Shea spent decades researching cognitive impairment as the director for the Center for Cellular Neurobiology and Neurodegeneration at UMass Lowell. He filed a patent for a combination of vitamins and supplements that can increase cognitive function in people with neurogenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The patent was licensed to a Waltham-based startup, which based an over-the-counter “nutraceutical” called Perceptiv on Shea’s technology. Now commercially available, the supplement provides UMass Lowell with its first running royalty from an intellectual property license since Rosenberg’s office was founded.

If a patent does generate a profit, a third of the profit goes to the university’s central fund, a third goes to the inventor, and a third goes to the lab.

Tapping driver phones for traffic updates

recognizing that drivers need real-time information about the road ahead, state transportation officials are preparing to spend $10 million over the next year building out a high-tech system to provide time-and-distance traffic updates to Massachusetts drivers.

A pilot program using portable electronic signs to provide the traffic updates on some of the state’s busiest highways has been deemed a success, so state officials are now starting to roll out permanent signs covering more than 678 miles of Massachusetts roads. The project will be the first publicly owned and operated, real-time traffic system in the country. It will cost about $500,000 a year to maintain.

“We’ve gotten a very good response,” says Rachel Bain, assistant secretary for performance management and innovation for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “It’s made people a lot calmer.”

The signs appear to be far more accurate in predicting the length of rides than traditional traffic updates, mainly because the system uses Bluetooth-enabled devices inside the cars of commuters to anonymously track travel.

In each of the current and planned signs, there is a receptor that picks up Bluetooth signals from cellphones or other cellular-transmitting devices in new model cars as they pass. Each device contains a unique identifier called a Machine Access Code (MAC) address that the transponder picks up and is then fed into the MassDOT’s computer system. The system tracks each of those MAC addresses and when the vehicles pass another sign with a Bluetooth receptor/transmitter, the addresses are run through an algorithm that then estimates the time it took to travel the distance between the two signs. The system then transmits the time-and-distance information back to the original sign, which continually updates a screen so drivers know how long it will take to get from Point A to Point B, C, or D.

Russ Bond, the director of Information and Technology Services for MassDOT, says the data collection is completely anonymous so someone driving, say, 85 in a 60 mile-per-hour zone, will not get an unexpected speeding ticket in the mail later on. Speeders, or people driving particularly slowly, would not even be included in the data used to provide the travel updates. Bond says the algorithm is programmed to weed out “anomalies” such as someone who drives above the speed limit or someone who pulls over at a rest area, delaying when they reach the next receptor point.

“Any anomaly, the algorithm will determine it is not useful,” says Bond. “If it’s outside of a certain statistical range, it throws it out. The data is taking an average from all of the vehicles.”

The receptors can also be adjusted to separate cars that travel in a High Occupancy Vehicle lane such as on Interstate 93 south coming into the city or the zipper lane on the Southeast Expressway. The antenna on the device has a range of 300 feet but Bond says it can be reduced and directed only at the general purpose lanes, where most commuters travel. Bond also says it’s not necessary for every car to have a phone or even to have the Bluetooth turned on.

“We only need about 5 percent of the traveling public to have their Bluetooth-enabled device on,” he says. “Regardless of behavior, we’ve always been accurate with the data.”

The accuracy claim comes with one caveat. The system posts time-and-distance information based on data collected from vehicles that passed a certain point several minutes earlier and are miles away by the time their data appears on the sign, so any accidents or breakdowns that occur in the meantime may not be included.

Bain says the federal government will pick up 80 percent of the $10 million cost to buy the technology equipment and install the 138 signs and 131 receptor points. While the current signs usually flash time and distance to just one or two points, all the permanent markers will have travel time to three destinations. Drivers getting on the Mass Pike at the New York border, for instance, will see travel time to Boston and two points in between.

The data collection will also be shared with app and web site developers, though Bain insists it is completely anonymous with no identifying information. The whole idea, says Bain, is to give commuters options, such as taking alternate routes or even opting for public transportation if a ride is going to take too long.

“The more information you have as motorists, the more options you have on your drive,” she says. “We’re looking to give you your time back.”

Boston’s PILOT program lagging

three years after the city of Boston launched a concerted effort to convince 49 of its largest nonprofit landholders to voluntarily make payments to the city in lieu of taxes, the program appears to be losing steam.

The amount of money the city is collecting continues to rise, but the increase is due primarily to the escalating payment schedule and not greater compliance. Overall, the nonprofits are paying a smaller percentage of what the city is asking them to pay and the number of nonprofits paying nothing at all is rising.

More than half of Boston’s land is owned by either nonprofit institutions or government bodies, both of which are exempt from municipal property taxes. With property taxes accounting for two-thirds of the city’s revenue, the so-called payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, program has become a mechanism for Boston to help pay for the services it provides.

Until fairly recently, the city tended to separately negotiate PILOT arrangements with individual nonprofits. In 2011, following a report from a task force, the city asked every nonprofit owning property valued at more than $15 million to make standardized payments based on a formula using the assessed value of their property and the cost of providing city services to them. A deduction is allowed for the community services provided by an institution.

The city’s PILOT collections shot up nearly 30 percent in fiscal 2012, and should continue to grow, although at a slower pace, through 2016 as the program is phased in. As the amounts being sought have increased, the participation by nonprofits has actually declined.

In fiscal 2014, the city took in $24.9 million from its PILOT program. That amount was up compared to 2013 ($23.2 million) and 2012 ($19.5 million), but as a percentage of the amount the city was seeking it was down. The city collected 72 percent of what it was asking for in 2014, 82 percent in 2013, and 91 percent in 2012.

The number of nonprofits paying the full amount sought by the city has also declined. This year, 20 nonprofits are fully complying and 16 are paying nothing, compared to 22 making the full payment and 13 paying nothing a year ago. The number paying a portion of what municipal officials say they should has held relatively steady at 14.

The city’s nonprofit medical institutions as a group have tended to pay nearly all of what the city says they owe (95 percent), but compliance by educational and cultural institutions has fallen over the last three years. Educational institutions paid 89 percent of what the city said they owed in 2012, but that percentage fell to 56 percent in 2014. For cultural institutions, the percentage has fallen from 54 percent to 30 percent.

In 2014, Boston University was billed a little over $6 million – far more than any other single institution – and paid 92 percent of it. BU President Robert Brown is up front on why he does it. “It’s enlightened self-interest,” he says. “Boston University thrives only if the city thrives. It’s clearly a win-win situation.”

Harvard University, the nation’s wealthiest educational institution with a $36 billion endowment, paid 51 percent of its $4.3 million PILOT bill, or $2.2 million. Kevin Casey, a university spokesman, says Boston’s PILOT calculation doesn’t count all of the university’s financial contributions to the city.

“Harvard has been among the highest contributors of voluntary PILOT over many decades,” he says. “Harvard’s level of maintenance for the Arnold Arboretum, a public jewel, is over $9 million a year that otherwise would have to be borne by the city’s parks and recreation department. That alone greatly offsets the entire PILOT request.”

Partners HealthCare’s four Boston hospitals (Massachusetts General, Brigham and Women’s, Faulkner, and Spaulding Rehabilitation) contributed their full combined PILOT total of $8.2 million.

“The city’s ability to thrive makes it a much better place for our institutions to be able to grow and to be strong,” says Gary Gottlieb, president and CEO of Partners. “The city deserves credit for having developed a standardized process that works well, and the not-for-profits deserve credit as well for working in partnership with the city.”

The cultural institutions in Boston are the lowest payers in the PILOT program. The Museum of Fine Arts, for example, was billed $646,000, but paid only 9 percent of that amount, or $60,000.

“We’re the only encyclopedic museum that we know of in the country that’s making a payment to the city,” says Mark Kerwin, deputy director and chief financial officer at the museum. He notes that the reverse is actually true in other cities — peer museums elsewhere actually get money from their cities. “Unquestionably, if we had to pay the full amount, it would have a substantial negative effect on our mission,” he says.

Northeastern University, after making payments for many years, dropped out of the PILOT program this year and did not pay any of its $2.5 million bill. “A new administration is a reset moment,” explains university spokeswoman Renata Nyul.

Wheelock College, which didn’t pay any of its $92,000 PILOT bill, says making the payment would jeopardize the school’s educational mission. “We do not plan to divert or reallocate resources in a way that would jeopardize our students, many of whom have increased financial aid needs,” spokesperson Beth Kaplan says.

In addition to Northeastern and Wheelock, 14 other nonprofits are not complying with the city’s PILOT requests. They include Emmanuel College (billed $367,000), Shriners Hospital ($212,000), Joslin Diabetes Center ($166,000), the New England Aquarium ($128,000), Franciscan Hospital ($82,000), the Institute of Contemporary Art ($52,000), the Museum of Science ($46,000), and the Children’s Museum ($37,000).

Samuel Tyler, the president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-backed group that monitors city finances, says officials need to move cautiously in trying to collect the unpaid funds, noting that nonprofits contribute enormously to the city’s economic and cultural life. “The last thing we want to do is kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” he says.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh seems to agree. “While the PILOT program remains a priority for my administration, it is a voluntary payment,” he says in a statement. “The city maintains an ongoing dialogue with these institutions on a range of topics, including PILOT. We will continue to work with these community partners and review their commitments as the program moves forward.”