RALEIGH – From the start of its search for a site to build a second headquarters and hire 50,000 people, Amazon has made clear the winning metropolitan area had to be committed to mass transit. So will the North Carolina General Assembly’s action this week to basically kill light rail from Durham to Chapel Hill doom the Triangle’s chances of convincing Amazon to build here?
And what about Apple with its thousands of jobs?
Frankly, because of the tight secrecy surrounding the projects, few if any people outside of state government know the status of any talks – let alone what impact the light rail decision is. Yet WRAL TechWire reported on Tuesday that two authors who have written a new book about the cons and pros of tax incentives for economic development say they believe the Triangle could win both projects.
But one Democratic representative believes the decision really hurts the Triangle’s chances to emerge as the winner for HQ2 in a competition matching the RTP area against 19 other metro areas.
Don’t build it …. don’t come?
Rep. Darren Jakson, D-Wake, didn’t mince words in an interview with WRAL’s Capitol Buruea Chief Laura Leslie:
“I know in particular one of the things that we tried to sell as a state to Amazon was – as opposed to other states – ‘Well, they may already have transit, but you’re already stuck with the transit they have. Come to North Carolina and you can help us develop our transit plan. You can have input now while we’re still at the planning and design phase before it’s constructed, and if we need to add stops, things like that, you can have a seat at that table.’
“And so I think clearly a company like that that was concerned with transit would see this provision and say – (raising his hands) ‘oops.’”
Yes, to set aside $240 million out of a nearly $24 billion budget the GOP leadership could very well have undone a package of reworked tax incentives designed to land a project like Apple and perhaps help lure Amazon as well.
Mass transit is a frequent battleground between left and right, liberal and conservative, green and (you provide the alternative term). Yet whether one believes in light rail, to risk $7 billion in investments and maybe 60,000 jobs over such a small piece of change (to keep dollars in perspective) seems to be darn penny wise and double-darn stupid.
More legislative fallout
A consensus of sorts had seemed to develop after years of haggling about mass transit for the Triangle – before Monday’s surprise bombshell. And for HQ2 proponents, the decision could be one of a number of straws that could break the back of a deal. (Apple’s stand on mass transit isn’t as clear but can anyone really doubt CEO Tim Cook favors it given Apple’s Silicon Valley roots and commitments to green energy such as at its data center complex in Western North Carolina?)
North Carolina economic developers still must wrestle with the fallout from HB2, AKA the bathroom bill. Gov. Roy Cooper wants a new statewide statute to deal with the matter once and for all. But there’s little chance of that happening, according to WRAL Statehouse reporter Travis Fain.
Now comes the mass transit stink bomb.
Here’s how Fain describes the impact of the light rail budget move:
“New budget language that holds back state funding for the planned passenger rail line between Durham and Chapel Hill was written to make the most of limited transportation dollars, Republican budget writers said Tuesday.
“It also drives a nail into the project, which has already cost local taxpayers $88 million and may never see the $1.2 billion in federal funding it depends on, Democrats complained during one of the few open forums planned before the budget passes this week.”
Remember Catch-22? It fits here.
“Democratic lawmakers from Orange and Durham counties said the Republican majority has now attached a Catch-22 to the project: No state funding without federal funding when there’s no federal funding without the state support.”
Why not wait?
You might think that such a decision on the Durham-Orange project might have been put on hold at least until a decision on HQ2 has been made. If HQ2 comes to town, growth in RTP traffic will demand an aggressive plan to handle it.
Again, ask yourself:
Is the $240 million involved worth scuttling a chance at $5 billion in investment and new jobs that basically would DOUBLE the employment in RTP over 10 years?
Is $240 million worth the risk of persuading Cook to give up on a state and region he says he loves to take Apple’s thousands of jobs and $2 billion or so in investment (including a big chunk for rural Western North Carolina)?
Unfortunately – going back to the lack of transparency around the projects – there has been no public debate about the decision.
Read what Rep. Jackson lamented to bureau chief Leslie:
“I can talk more intelligently about Amazon because their recruitment effort has been public. Andi know that public transit has been a big part of what they’re seeking. And so I can add and subtract as well as you can, so I would assume that that would be a real red flag for Amazon.
“It’s clear that their intention was to kill the light rail project in Orange and Durham county, and I would imagine that any major technology company that was looking to relocate either a headquarters or a second – they would take note of that.”
Despite Monday being Memorial Day, GoTriangle’s alarmed top executive wasted no time in issuing a statement decrying the Republican budget move.
“We are assessing next steps, but the amended budget certainly appears to be detrimental to the light-rail project,” GoTriangle General Manager Jeff Mann said in a statement.
And one can bet lieutenants of both Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook made sure the CEOs got the news.