Transit and the hunt for Amazon’s HQ

In Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Wonka Bar fever sweeps the world as children (and adults) tear into millions of Willy Wonka’s candy bars in hopes of finding one of five golden tickets.

That same fevered anticipation blanketed civic and business meetings across the nation as leaders discussed (planned? plotted? prayed?) how to be on the short list for Amazon’s second headquarters.  Local and regional committees developed packages of tax incentives, boasted of their educational systems and labor forces, and worked to position themselves to entice Amazon to set up shop in their area. Even those who didn’t submit proposals heard frequent conversations among civic and business leaders around how to get a game-changing headquarters like Amazon.

Some cities were able to pursue the Amazon opportunity with the coordination of Veruca Salt’s father, creating realistic and compelling proposals; twenty such communities are now on the short list.

But others were confronted with a shared significant weakness: a lack of mass transit.  It’s what the CityLab blog called “a come-to-Jesus moment for cities where high-level service has long been an afterthought.”  Writer Laura Bliss quotes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Jim Galloway: “There’s nothing like being left out of the money to force a rethinking of policy.”

So what does that rethinking look like?

Some cities who made the cut and who also made recent transit improvements can provide a model.  Raleigh, NC and Indianapolis are both on the short list. Although some believe it was their business environment and active, younger labor force that tipped the scales for them (rather than transit), both Raleigh and Indianapolis passed taxes within the last 18 months to pump local dollars into their mass transit systems. Columbus, OH, also an Amazon headquarters finalist without a large transit system, received a renewal of a quarter-cent tax for transit in 2016.  Each has ambitious plans for transit expansion.

Of course, there’s more to the story. Some communities that didn’t make the cut, like Grand Rapids, MI, just renewed a tax for transit in 2017. Houston also wasn’t named a finalized, even though it revamped the transit system in 2015 to be more responsive (with increased ridership as a result).

But as Andrew Van Dam’s analysis in the Washington Post pointed out, the US cities that made the cut could check the boxes of having top levels of educated technical works, large public transit systems, and active young labor markets. None of them is lacking mass transit.

How many of these boxes will Greenville, SC check the next time an opportunity like Amazon HQ2 comes up?

Who cares about funding for transit – and why?

We know that Greenlink’s local and state revenues for transit fall far behind other peer communities in the Southeast. Because of this, Greenlink is using federal funds that are generally intended for capital expenses – such as replacement buses – to operate the system.  This creates a double-whammy for Greenlink; the lack of capital dollars means they have not been able to purchase new vehicles or save money in a capital replacement fund. And the limited operational dollars mean the system is unable to expand to meet residents’ needs.

Thanks to our 2017 transit funding report and the attention of numerous local advocates from the private sector, social sector, health care, education, and more, our community is beginning to take notice. The Greenville Chamber of Commerce 2018 Public Policy Agenda lists support for mass transit a top priority at the state and local level, noting that a plan from the City of Greenville and Greenville County needs to be a “first step toward a long-term plan to bring Greenlink funding to the level of our peer cities so our workers have public transit options to take advantage of jobs, healthcare, and education.”

Transit Director Gary Shepard recently presented to the Greenville County Council Committee of the Whole with a room packed with nonprofit organizations, health care providers, community-based organizations and businesses. Several council members noted that without increased funding, it will be impossible for the system to meet the community’s needs, ranging from connections to jobs, serving residents pushed out of the city by gentrification, alleviation of traffic congestion on major thoroughfares, and positioning the region for headquarters opportunities like that recently presented by Amazon.

We are encouraged by the number of conversations around the importance of transit funding, and we look forward to discussion leading to a strong transit system for all.

Greenlink continues to make progress

2017 was a year of significant progress at Greenlink, Greenville County’s public transit system. Thanks to the leadership of its staff and board members, Greenlink is making changes to be more responsive and rider-friendly in the near term and to anticipate growth and community needs in the future.

Adoption of route changes. Greenlink completed twenty public hearings to share results of its Comprehensive Operational Analysis (COA) of the system and the route changes it recommends. These changes, approved by the Greenville Transit Authority board in December, will be the first significant adjustments made to the routes in decades. Community members who attended the sessions were excited to see plans to add more bidirectional service and more transfer points outside of downtown, and riders of the busy route serving Furman, Cherrydale, and Rutherford Road were thrilled to see that this route will be split in two to improve crowding and on-time service.

Addition of an Intelligent Transit System (ITS). Thanks to the philanthropic support of our partners The Graham Foundation, Hollingsworth Funds, and the Jolley Foundation, Greenlink riders will soon be able to track on their phones the location of their bus and see how full it is. This is a long-desired benefit for riders who can now see if the bus is early or late, and it will help provide the real-time data Greenlink staff need to make smart business decisions.

Other technology advancements are coming, including an electronic payment system (for those with credit cards, no more counting out quarters for the bus ride) and the much anticipated purchase of two Proterra buses (with delivery expected in late 2019).

Progress on the Transit Development Plan. The TDP considers the Greenlink network from 2020 through 2024 and ways to make it useful to more residents in Greenville city and county. It recommends a prioritized service plan that demonstrates where and how Greenlink should operate expanded services in the next five years and identifies costs for this expansion. The TDP was recommended as a phase two in our 2015 mobility study and was funded in part by the Piedmont Health Foundation.

After surveying riders and community members, holding community focus groups, and considering Greenlink’s operational opportunities and constraints, the TDP draft offers the following recommendations:

• Extend weekday service from 7:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., cost = $800,000
• Expand Saturday service to 5:30 a.m. (from 8:30 a.m.) through 11:30 p.m. (from 5:30 p.m.), cost = $323,000
• Improve all weekday routes to 30 minute frequency (from 60 minutes), cost = $3,000,000 plus $7,700,000 in capital costs for expanded fleet
• Add Saturday frequency (increasing from 60 minutes to 30 minutes), cost = $367,000
• Add Sunday service (60 minute frequency over 12 hours), cost = $548,000

The plan also considers adding routes to provide more crosstown and connecting service as well as service for commuters from Easley.

Of course, these expansions are all contingent upon increases in funding.

But with Greenlink’s positive demonstration of its responsiveness, innovation, and strong stewardship of resources, combined with the significant growth we are seeing in Greenville County, the case for greater investment is becoming clear.