Regional business community response to New York Times article on the contenders for Amazon HQ2
As the executive director of a regional business group in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, I have read with interest several of the articles on Amazon’s exciting HQ2 project, including the solid piece in the New York Times on September 9, 2017 by Emily Badger, Quoctrung Bui, and Claire Cain Miller.
The article rates metro areas by several factors identified by Amazon, including job growth, labor pool, quality of life, and transportation.
According to the article, our Research Triangle region—Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and surrounding areas— scored well on the first three factors. We are one of the fastest-growing markets in the country, we have a very high proportion of technology workers, and our quality of life is renowned. As a result, we were one of nine areas out of more than 50 U.S. regions of more than 1 million population to make it through the first three screening factors identified in the article.
However, the article then got to the fourth screening factor, and eliminated our market from a transportation, “workers can easily get around—and out of town” perspective. Our understanding is that we were eliminated due to our current level of public transportation service and use.
In reality, our region’s mobility is actually one of our prime assets, not a deal-breaker. We continue to have one of the lowest levels of traffic congestion of any growing metro area, and we plan to keep it that way. We are also investing billions in local funds – all approved by voter referenda – to create a flexible, scalable suite of enhanced multimodal transit and transportation options within the next ten years. In addition, we have strong and growing domestic and international air service connectivity.
The remainder of this post provides more details about our region’s competitive advantage in mobility.
Traffic congestion. Let’s start with the current numbers. Of the nine metros remaining at the article’s fourth screening question on transportation, five metros are among the top 10 most congested cities in the country (Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Miami, Washington) according to the traffic information service company INRIX, and all but one of the nine are in the top 25 most congested areas (adding Austin, Denver, and Portland).
The only remaining metro that is not among the top 25 most congested in the country? Raleigh, which comes in at 72. Durham, by the way, is not even in the top 100.
Given the severe traffic in Amazon’s current headquarters market of Seattle, one might have instead posited that Amazon would be unlikely to select a city that already ranks worse than Seattle from a congestion standpoint—particularly before Amazon sets up shop and adds 50,000 more people to the network. Since Seattle is ranked 10th worst in the U.S., that would eliminate Atlanta (4), Miami (5), Washington (6), Dallas (7), and Boston (8) from further consideration.
Protected location. One reason we have been successful in avoiding major congestion is geographic good fortune. We are near I-85 and I-95, but neither of these vital roadways actually enters our largest city and county. This means that we do not have to contend with substantial interstate through travelers in addition to our own workers during peak commuting times. In addition, while we have multiple vibrant downtowns and other major employment areas, we are geographically dispersed within our market, which further reduces congestion, as well as housing costs.
Accelerated freeway improvements. We are not sitting on our comparatively low-congestion laurels. Raleigh, Durham, and environs will be investing billions in regional freeway improvements over the next 10 years, including an extension of our turnpike—the most technologically advanced toll road in America—which will complete an outer beltway serving our fastest-growing communities. A major reason we are able to advance these regional freeway connections is North Carolina’s data-driven allocation formula that provides significant state funding for transportation and then targets it to relieve congestion and keep the economy moving.
Another reason we are able to advance needed improvements is that we seek out innovative options, such as our successful pursuit of express shoulder lanes – which will provide accelerated peak period relief and a transit advantage at 1/7 the cost of a full-blown express lane.
Flexible, scalable enhanced transit future. What about transit? The story here again shows a region that is focused on its future and willing to make the investments needed for our growing market during a time of great technology change.
The citizens of all three of our core urban counties have passed transit referenda in the past few years, providing locally-controlled, dedicated sales taxes for new transit service. And unlike a number of cities, we have no legacy rail systems to repair, or budget shortfalls requiring bus service cuts that many markets are facing. To the contrary, we now have more than $100 million in local funds—annually, in perpetuity, just to develop a suite of new, flexible and scalable transit options in our three urban core counties in just ten years.
Take our largest county as an example, which passed a referendum just last year. Wake County will dedicate more than $1 billion in new local funds to triple bus service, greatly expand our frequent transit network including four bus rapid transit corridors, and initiate a commuter rail line along an existing rail corridor between Raleigh and Durham, all within the next 10 years. Solutions like bus rapid transit and commuter rail are inherently scalable and adaptable—they can be deployed quickly and expanded as the market changes and evolves, while taking advantage of new propulsion technologies as they emerge.
Air service. There is more. Our airport, Raleigh-Durham International, was recently named the most connected medium-sized airport in the U.S., with 50 nonstop destinations, including multiple daily flights to Washington, D.C., New York, Seattle, and San Francisco, plus daily service to London, Toronto, and Paris—without having one carrier dominate service. Our legislature will invest more than $30 million—in this fiscal year alone—for improvements to RDU as part of a $2 billion master plan for its future and that of our region.
Overall approach for success. Amazon has four guiding principles, including a customer obsession rather than a competitor focus. Our area has followed a similar philosophy for decades, making investment decisions in transportation, education, and overall business climate that are the best for our residents and visitors, rather than over-focusing on what current or potential peer markets may be doing. In the case of mobility, the business community came together more than 15 years ago to create a regional organization that has guided strategy, identified and lobbied for solutions appropriate for our market, and united the public and private sectors, year after year, to support our transportation partners and keep our region and economy moving. Our market has a 15+ year track record of success of the regional business community working in concert with our public sector to advance needed improvements.
The bottom line is that transportation will be an increasingly competitive advantage for our high-growth region, thanks to ongoing, funded investments in flexible, scalable multimodal infrastructure and sustained focus by the regional business community.
We recognize that Amazon—and any expanding company—will pick the metro area with the combination of current attributes and a future trajectory that aligns best with its business objectives. With three tier one research universities, east coast, eastern time zone location, strong talent pool, pro-business climate, nationally recognized community college system, effective current and future transportation system, and an engaged business community, we expect to be very competitive.
We wish Amazon well, wherever they choose to invest.
Joe Milazzo II, PE, Executive Director, Regional Transportation Alliance