Road Worrier

Road Worrier: New urban workers want rail transit

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comNovember 11, 2013 

An Amtrak train leaves downtown Raleigh in this file photo. Joe Szabo, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, was in Raleigh earlier this year to announce more federal money to help build an Amtrak station at the foot of Martin street next door to the planned Citrix offices (in the upper left area of photo).

SHAWN ROCCO — 2011 News &; Observer file photo

— If you want to understand what transit fans mean when they talk about using trains to shape and serve the Triangle’s relentless growth over the next few decades, think about software executive Jesse Lipson and his young technology workers – and think about this very decade.

Lipson built a file transfer and storage company, ShareFile, that had 85 employees when he sold it to California-based Citrix in 2011. Now a Citrix vice president, he is busy expanding his payroll while construction continues on a four-story office in Raleigh’s red-brick warehouse district, near a planned Amtrak and transit hub.

“We have about 400 employees now,” Lipson said last week at a gathering focused on the economic benefits of transit. “When we move into the building in the middle of the year, we’ll be about 500. And if we keep growing, we’ll have to build another building after that. So talent recruitment is key for us.”

Lipson, 36, looks to a younger generation of knowledge workers – to folks often called “the creative class” – when he tries to hire top-notch software developers and engineers. These are not the sort of commuters who want to spend 30 or 45 minutes in the car each morning.

“They’re interested in things like living close to work, walking to work, biking to work, taking the bus – and taking trains a lot more than most people do,” he said.

He lures new recruits from New Jersey and California who like Raleigh’s lower housing prices “and also the non-existent traffic here,” he said.

But Citrix is finding it harder to hire workers who live in Durham or Chapel Hill.

They hate all that driving – and Lipson does, too. Driving to Durham for a meeting “feels like such a chore” he said.

“If I was on a train or a bus or something where I could open my laptop and connect to the Internet, then it’s not a big deal. I could work,” he said. “But if I’m having to drive there, it’s just totally dead time.”

Lipson spoke to an audience of 250 at a “Transit Makes $en$e” gathering sponsored by WakeUP Wake County and other pro-transit groups. It was a bit like a pep rally, coming ahead of Tuesday’s meeting at which the Wake County commissioners will start their own discussion – expected to be more skeptical – of a plan for light rail, rush-hour commuter trains and beefed-up bus service.

Plans for denser growth

Mitchell Silver, Raleigh’s planning director, said the Triangle will need transit to support areas of dense, urban development that can absorb most of the 1.2 million new residents and 700,000 new jobs expected over the next 20 years.

That denser growth is under way. Construction of new single-family homes has fallen sharply in Raleigh over the past decade. Apartments and other multi-family units accounted for 73 percent of the housing permits issued by the city in 2012, Silver said. For the years 2000 through 2011, that share was 37 percent.

Raleigh is encouraging this denser development downtown and around planned rail stations – where residents, workers and shoppers will rely less on cars and more on buses and trains.

“It’s not transit just to make sure people have an alternative or to alleviate congestion,” Silver said. “It manages growth. It helps create great places. It is efficient use of land. It will help keep taxes low and stable. It will give people more choices to live and to work.”

William Schroeer, who works for the chambers of commerce in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., said the Twin Cities rail transit plan is putting 500,000 more workers – a 25 percent increase – within a 30-minute commute of employers there. That is appealing for prospective CEOs who would want to draw from talent pools in both cities, he said.

The talk wasn’t just about Citrix and other technology firms such as Red Hat, which recently moved its headquarters downtown.

Jim Anthony of Colliers International, a Raleigh-based commercial real estate firm, said transit will be a key to sustaining growth downtown, around North Hills and in other so-called “vibrant centers.” Office vacancy rates are near zero in downtown Raleigh and Durham, Anthony said – a sign of brisk demand.

Vacancies in RTP

“The vacancy problems we have in our market are suburban – and, regrettably, the highest vacancy rate in the market is in Research Triangle Park,” Anthony said.

Seated with Lipson and Anthony at the meeting table was Bob Geolas, CEO of the foundation that runs RTP. The sprawling, 7,000-acre park was designed in the 1950s for workers who commuted alone in their cars from Durham and Raleigh. Its new master plan calls for dense, urban growth around proposed RTP rail transit stations.

“We’re having real challenges in our business,” Anthony said, “convincing people to go to locations where they’re going to have to commute long distances, and ask their employees to pay more for gasoline, and waste more time in automobiles. So transit is making a huge impact in our market.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or newsobserver.com/roadworrierblog Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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