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?

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