Buried deep at the bottom — section 136 — of Massachusetts state legislature Bill H.4569 are two paragraphs that could make the Bay State travel in time.
The legislature has agreed to explore switching time zones, moving from Eastern Standard Time to Atlantic Standard Time — an hour ahead of the rest of the East Coast — for four months starting in the middle of November.
The bill, signed by Gov. Charlie Baker (R), creates a legislative commission to study the proposal.
Boston and other parts of the state are so far east that in winter, it gets dark really early, residents complain. How early? The first two weeks of December, the sun sets at 4:12 p.m. The latest sunrise that month is 7:13 a.m. That’s a lot of darkness.
“Any way you slice it, it’s going to be about nine hours of daylight and 15 hours of darkness,” said Tom Emswiler, 36, of Quincy, Mass. He submitted the study request to the legislature as a “bill by request,” a mechanism that allows residents to submit bills to the state legislature independent of elected officials.
Emswiler is a Virginia native and spent six years in the District before moving to Boston in 2011. When winter rolled around that year, he nearly hibernated, he said, because of how long nighttime seemed to last. He said he'd be willing to sacrifice an hour of early morning light for a little more on his commute home.
If the state decided to make the change to Atlantic Standard Time, which parts of Canada and some Caribbean islands also observe, it'd give Massachusetts residents a sunlight happy hour, even in the depths of winter.
But even state Sen. John F. Keenan (D-Quincy), who introduced the bill on Emswiler’s behalf, is undecided on a measure that would put the state on a different clock than its neighbors. Still, he said he introduced the bill to study the time change because he understands the profound effect winter's early dusk has on many of his constituents.
“I’m one of those people where I look forward to Dec. 21 or whatever the shortest day of the year is because then we get longer days,” he said. “It really does bother some people.”
And there are real social and financial benefits, proponents say. Crime drops during daylight hours. So do heart-attack rates. People are more productive when the sun is shining and tend to "cyberloaf" during daylight savings time, according to a 2012 report in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Workers surf the Web instead of doing their jobs, and normal tasks take longer than usual.
The hour (and productivity) lost when we “spring forward” in March costs the U.S. about $1.65 per person, according to SleepBetter’s Lost-Hour Economic Index. Boston suffers a $1.68 cost per capita.
So would being ahead of time actually help?
Gov. Baker doesn’t think so, but he’s willing to let the legislature research the issue.
“I think the time zones we have are fine, and they've been fine for a very long time,” he said earlier in August. “I especially worry that if we head too far down this road, we could end up creating a lot of problems for ourselves with respect to all sorts of issues around work schedules, commuting schedules and a whole bunch of other things.”
It would cost a lot of money when it came to dealing with time-zone changes between Massachusetts and the rest of the East Coast, state officials said. Think about a New York company trying to work with folks in Massachusetts; it could discourage business activity.
Or think about flights or trains or buses leaving Massachusetts for literally anywhere else. That’d be pretty confusing to figure out, as well, and confusion has a social cost. That’s why the federal Department of Transportation must approve any time-zone change requests.
“I don’t know what the impact will be for Massachusetts in the financial markets where we’d be on Atlantic, and the rest of the East Coast would be on Eastern time,” Keenan said.
It will be a while before Massachusetts reaches a verdict on its place in the space-time continuum. The legislative commission isn’t slated to report back to the full legislature until July.