We don’t know where you’re reading this magazine, but we do know that if you’re in Columbus, you aren’t reading it on a passenger train. The dearth of mass transit has been long bemoaned by more progressive minds, and Transit Columbus, a mostly volunteer nonprofit advocacy group, is one organization that’s attempting to bring the city closer to a more complete transportation system.
On April 22, Transit Columbus will host the culminating event for GOOD IDEAS Columbus, a program that challenged six design teams to solve one transit-related problem each, given to them by community leaders. (614) spoke with Eric Davies, the chair of the organization’s board of trustees, to give us a status report for transportation in the city, and where we go from here.
How has transit in Columbus improved over the past five years?
Mainly COTA getting [the] expanded levy and the additional quarter-percent sales tax has really been a positive boon to public transit in Central Ohio and has allowed COTA to restore service that was cut and to really grow the service over the last five years. And that has been really valuable.
It’s vital that COTA renews their additional quarter-percent sales tax funding, which expires in 2016, and we’d certainly like to see it grow as well, and that COTA is able to look at some other modes. They’ve got the bus rapid-transit proposal on the table for the northeast corridor going to Cleveland Avenue, and we are in favor of that, and we’d like to certainly see this city and this region look at light rail, streetcar, and commuter rail, as well as intercity passenger rail.
What are the major challenges to getting more comprehensive transit systems in town that might include rail?
I think an understanding of the value of those modes, and the political will to shift how we fund our transportation systems. I think those are really the biggest issues. I think there’s a growing recognition that we are a city that really lacks in the infrastructure that we need … Columbus is a city that historically had a really robust passenger rail system in place. We had streetcars, we had interurban rail, and we had intercity passenger rail back in the first half of the 20th century. It was a very vibrant city. I live in the Beechwold area, and my neighborhood in this whole Clintonville-Beechwold area of the city flourished because of the streetcar.
Steve Campbell from the city finance office said one of the major challenges right now is that there really aren’t federal dollars coming in for the bigger rail investments. In addition, Governor Kasich has already rejected federal funds for a rail line. What can a local advocacy group do to combat funding hurdles on those higher levels?
First of all, and I certainly hear where Steve’s coming from, but there’s some money out there for large federal investments. There’s the TIGER Grant program, and there are some others … so I partially agree with Steve [and] I think it’s hard to get that money, but I think it’s also out there. I think that part of our shortfall and our shortcomings is we haven’t been putting up those applications, so of course you don’t get ’em unless you are willing to take some risk and put together a plan so they could potentially apply for federal funding. And I understand one area where we did that was for the 3C and passenger rail from Cincinnati to Columbus to Cleveland, but that got pulled and there were some unfortunate political issues there…there hasn’t been enough exposure and information and just dialogue about why public transit is important to Columbus and Central Ohio. And so that’s why we exist and we’re gonna continue to move this agenda forward, and I think that’s just what’s needed.
Okay, I’m giving you a magic wand and you can change one thing about the city’s transit today. What do you do?
I would say if I could wave a magic wand I would go back to when we could have put the light rail in place in the north corridor, which would have been right around about 12, 14 years ago when we had a levy on the ballot for that, and I would have passed that levy and it would be in place now. And I think that would shift the entire image of this community, and I think we would be looking at this picture very differently than we are right now.
You have GOOD IDEAS Columbus coming up, and people tend to really like these things that offer ambitious, creative solutions. Ultimately, though, can an event like this generate real change or tangible results for the city?
I’m kinda mentoring one of the teams, and one of the things I’ve said is, just look at this problem through some different lenses and see what maybe are some easy short-term things that could happen in the next few months to a year to two years, and what are some longer term fixes that might need to occur and might really take a lot of energy and planning and time. And so hopefully we can find some small victories to help motivate action toward some of the bigger challenges that would really take more time, energy, and funding and maybe even some minor to major infrastructure change.
The point of GOOD IDEAS is not to come up with final transportation plans to solve a problem. It’s really to look at what’s happening now. What are some of our key issues in Central Ohio that are challenges and barriers for us in terms of offering a more multi-modal transportation system? … I think we’re gonna all be surprised and delighted to see what we get from this process, and I think the coolest thing about it is it’s really just engaging a lot of people in being a part of their transportation planning.
GOOD IDEAS Columbus will be held on April 22 at Seventh Son Brewing, 1101 N Fourth St., starting at 6 p.m. For more info, visit www.transitcolumbus.org/good-ideas-columbus.