By Andrew Dunn
I’d love for Amazon to choose Raleigh for its second headquarters city as much as anyone. Can you imagine how big an impact that $5 billion investment and 50,000 jobs would have on the state economy? The spillover effects would lift all parts of North Carolina.
But I don’t think that Jeff Bezos will end up picking the Triangle, for one simple reason: We’ve continually whiffed on mass transit.
It’s right there in the RFP, one of the four main things Amazon is looking for: access to mass transit.
While the company does list bus routes as an option, does anybody actually believe that a GoTriangle stop is going to impress Amazon when plenty of our competitors have light rail, trains, or subways? Even if the maps are cool and look like a metro system map.
Why doesn’t the Triangle have light rail?
Lots of reasons.
The main one is likely because the Triangle is so decentralized. Any transit plan would need to link multiple counties — Durham, Orange, Wake — and a large number of small towns. Charlotte didn’t have the same problem, with Mecklenburg County and Charlotte sharing so many services and the city having annexed so much land that could have become independent towns. Charlotte’s current light rail line is all within city limits1.
The Triangle also hasn’t had a centralized business community that’s advocated for transit. That’s starting to change, but 15-20 years ago, it wasn’t there like it was in Charlotte.
As late as 2013, transit experts were telling Triangle leaders that the area wasn’t suited for light rail.
And in 2015, the state legislature killed the chances of North Carolina chipping in more than $500,000 on these types of projects.
There are some plans in the works, however.
The farthest along is a plan to use light rail to connect Durham and Chapel Hill. The nearly 18-mile line would connect UNC, Duke and N.C. Central, and cut down congestion on 15-501.
Durham and Orange counties have been collecting a half-cent sales tax (similar to the one in Charlotte that funded its light rail) since 2012. Last summer, the federal government approved the project to move into the engineering phase.
But here’s the thing: These types of projects take forever. Engineering on Charlotte’s Blue Line began in 2000, and the line didn’t open until 2007.
Even with the line’s success, the process for the Blue Line Extension took even longer. Engineering began in 2008, and the line is set to open in March 2018.
We’re looking at a solid decade until a Durham-Chapel Hill light rail could open2, which is well after Amazon would like to be operational.
A more promising project is a proposed Wake-Durham commuter rail that would run through Research Triangle Park and the RDU Airport.
While this 37-mile, $2.3 billion line is technically part of Wake County’s 10-year transit plan, the project is way farther off than the Durham-Chapel Hill light rail.