Business

Will Amazon bypass the Triangle because of mass transit?

A concept illustration shows what a Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit station might look like in downtown Durham. Economic developers hope that the Triangle’s plans for future mass transit are enough to help woo Amazon as it searches for a site for a second headquarters.
A concept illustration shows what a Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit station might look like in downtown Durham. Economic developers hope that the Triangle’s plans for future mass transit are enough to help woo Amazon as it searches for a site for a second headquarters. COURTESY OF GOTRIANGLE

At first blush, it looks like the Triangle has everything Amazon wants in a place to locate its second headquarters: An educated, high-tech workforce, a good quality of life, a strong local economy and a “stable and business-friendly environment.”

Then you get to the part of its eight-page request for proposals where the online retailer says it wants “direct access” to mass transit – “rail, train, subway/metro, bus routes.” We have buses, but the vast majority of Triangle commuters drive; only an estimated 2 percent in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill metropolitan area took the bus to work in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey released last week.

“I felt like the region performed strongly on all of the criteria, and then you get to transit and you think, well that might be our weakness,” said Michael Pittman, vice president for marketing and communications at the Research Triangle Foundation, which is putting together a proposal for Amazon. “Because we don’t have a mass transit system in place yet.”

But the more Pittman talked to other economic developers in the region, it became clear transit may not be the deal-breaker it seems. Wake, Durham and Orange counties have drawn up plans for new mass transit systems, and voters have agreed to pay higher sales taxes to help build them.

This summer, the Federal Transit Administration approved the start of engineering work on a 17.7-mile light-rail line that will connect Chapel Hill and Durham, the last design phase before learning whether the counties could get 50 percent of the project’s $2.47 billion cost from the federal government. The local money will largely come from vehicle registration fees, car rental fees and a half-cent transit sales tax.

Meanwhile in Wake, voters last fall approved a half-cent sales tax increase to support a $2.3 billion transit plan that includes more frequent bus service, four bus rapid transit lines and commuter rail connecting Garner, Raleigh, Cary, Morrisville and RTP by 2027.

The two plans and the tax increases to pay for them show a commitment to transit, said Joe Milazzo II, executive director of the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group associated with the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

“I think that makes us very attractive for Amazon and, frankly, for many other companies that want to locate to an innovative market that’s looking to be ahead and at what it needs to do to stay there,” Milazzo said.

Seattle-based Amazon issued its request for proposals in early September, saying it is looking to establish a second corporate headquarters that would cost more than $5 billion to build and equip and would employ as many as 50,000 people within 10 to 15 years of opening. The company set a deadline of Oct. 19 for proposals, and said it would select a site in 2018.

Outside observers have rated the Triangle highly in the competition, except on the issue of mass transit. The New York Times, under the headline “Dear Amazon, We Picked Your New Headquarters for You,” began with the 50 U.S. metro areas that met Amazon’s population criteria, then whittled them down. The Triangle made it into the top 9, but then lost out when it comes to moving workers around. (The top pick in the Times analysis was Denver.)

It’s not unusual for companies to want to know how their employees will get to work – or get to other cities; one of Amazon’s criteria is to be within 45 minutes of an international airport with daily direct flights to Seattle, New York, Washington and the San Francisco Bay area, something Raleigh-Durham International Airport offers.

“It is not uncommon for large employers to ask about transportation networks in their requests for information,” said Beth Ann Gargan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Commerce. “We don’t keep statistics on how often it is asked, but we do know that employers are interested in how their workforce will get to work everyday.”

Pittman of the Research Triangle Foundation said the fact that the Triangle is just getting started on building mass transit could be appealing to a huge employer like Amazon, which might relish the opportunity to help mold the region’s nascent system to meet its needs as it grows.

“If anything, it’s best that we don’t have everything done,” he said, “because Amazon has the flexibility to grow, and we have the flexibility to grow with them.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

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