One of the main reasons behind creation of the Connecticut Bioscience Growth Council was to connect the biopharma sector with the state’s larger business community.
Biopharma’s focus on managing huge research and development (R&D) expenses, navigating complex federal regulatory approval processes and protecting intellectual property makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that the industry also faces most of the issues common to other job creators in the state, from workplace and energy costs to transportation.
Transportation is a critical issue for biopharma. As one biotech executive said, “As I travel around Connecticut, I think a lot of that Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken.”
His company considered several possible locations, but chose Connecticut because it seemed ideal. Yale University’s labs were where the company’s core intellectual property was developed and Connecticut is near the R&D and venture capital of Boston-Cambridge, New York’s finance world, and the regulatory and research hospital corridor from Washington, D.C. to northern New Jersey.
But reality is a lot different. While competing biopharma clusters of Boston-Cambridge, San Diego and San Francisco have significant traffic congestion issues, Connecticut’s traffic snarls and unpredictability of rail and air transportation was an “unpleasant surprise” to the executive.
The other biopharma locations are more attractive to start-up and legacy companies because their larger size provides a rich intellectual “soup” of research institutions and scientific talent.
Connecticut can compete with them because of its own, smaller, research and scientific talent pool and superior quality of life—which presumably includes freedom from the transportation woes of big city-suburban traffic.
Unfortunately, companies are finding that getting around Connecticut is no different and sometimes worse than some of the large cities.
Many employees of New Haven-based biotechs live in Fairfield County, which gives spouses access to job opportunities in New York City. It may look like a straight, easy shot to Grand Central, but it can take hours to get from the Stamford area to New Haven.
Similarly, biopharma employees in the Danbury area often find themselves stuck in long waits no different from those in and around New York and Boston.
And for those in southeastern Connecticut and the Hartford region, rail service is slow and inconvenient.
Many biopharma companies have roots in Western Europe and are surprised to find the hundred miles to and from the Boston and New York metro areas–easily accomplished in the course of one day in Europe–can require an overnight stay.
Despite efforts to reinvigorate Tweed-New Haven airport and market Bradley International, most companies prefer the variety of options and predictability of New York’s airports.
It will be a shame if the investment in building Connecticut’s biopharma sector and reaping the benefit of the industry’s high paying jobs is undermined by an antiquated transportation system.
Some believe that increasing the state’s highway capacity will simply lead to more use and won’t really ease congestion. New roads fill up with new users when they link to growing communities. Utah’s population, for example, has grown at a rate of 2%-3% for 20 years.
But Connecticut’s population has been stagnant for a generation. Biopharma employees commuting from Fairfield County consider new and better roads necessary to meet an obvious demand and note that the region is largely built out, with little available open space to build new communities of significant size.
In any case, companies are starting to place a greater weight to the problem in making decisions about locating or expanding here.
Hopefully, Gov. Malloy’s recently appointed Transportation Finance Panel will grasp the importance of understanding and solving Connecticut’s transportation problems and be the catalyst for critically needed change.
Summing things up, the biopharma executive said, “to paraphrase [the Frost poem], I thought we took the road less traveled but it seems Connecticut roads are actually a lot more travelled.”