Interview: Curtis Stitt on his Tenure at COTA and the State of Public Transit in Columbus
Curtis Stitt’s last day at the helm of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) was September 29th. His five years as President and CEO capped nearly 19 in all at the agency. Columbus Underground sat down with Stitt for a wide-ranging interview just before he left, touching on everything from Smart Columbus, to the recent redesign of the bus network, to the planned downtown transit pass. He also offered up a general assessment of his tenure at COTA and some surprisingly candid thoughts about what he thinks has held Columbus back on the transportation front. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
CU: What do you think the impact of the Downtown pass program will be on COTA?
CS: I see this program as transformational. I think it’s going to be viewed nationwide, once it’s up and running, as a model for how to creatively address problems. This isn’t just a public transit exercise on thinking outside the box, it’s about how do we creatively resolve problems and address issues in our community. I think it’s going to be viewed as a transit program, but I think really it’s a Downtown development program.
CU: I would imagine it’s going to bring a lot of people into the COTA system that haven’t been riders before.
CS: I think ridership will take off. We know that it’ll take just a small increase in the percentage of people Downtown who take COTA to have a significant effect on the two issues that Cleve wants to see turned around. But the more people that take advantage of this opportunity to have free — to the user — transportation to get to their jobs Downtown, the more ridership will increase.
And as a side note on this, I want to make it clear. Some people think, well, why does everything Downtown get the preference and the priority? This is a Downtown employee program — it benefits people who work Downtown but who live throughout our entire community. Full disclosure, there are some features of it that might allow some residents to piggyback on it — we’ll see how many of those choose to do so — but the main benefit is spread around throughout the community.
CU: What do you think the impact on the Smart City win has been so far, on Columbus and on COTA?
CS: On my telephone and my email, the impact has been getting a lot of contacts from folks who want to piggy back on Smart Columbus — “we’ve got products and services that we think are aligned with smart tech, and we want to show you this” — and I keep telling them, it’s not our project, it’s a city grant, we don’t have any money (laughs). But I think the real impact of this thus far has been Columbus is now being viewed as more than what some of my friends call the cow town, it’s being viewed as an area that could be the next technology center in this country.
There are a lot of businesses that want to deploy their product or service here, because they want to be associated with what Columbus was able to do in achieving this grant. It’s given Columbus exposure that it wouldn’t have gotten before, and it’s gotten people paying attention to Columbus that probably wouldn’t have thought a lot about Columbus in the past. So, I think from a standpoint of bringing attention to Columbus, it’s going to be great.
As the projects that were part of the grant are actually deployed and become operational, then we use what we learn from those to expand the successful aspects of the grant programs. I think that’s going to pay dividends in being able to say this is Columbus, and this is why you should locate your business here. Students at Ohio State, and all of the other colleges here, this is why you should stay here in Columbus, not just stay here to be educated, but make this your home — we’re going to be a lot more attractive for lots of people and businesses.
CU: The NextGen report really makes the case for — and you’ve talked about it too — the importance of developing high-capacity transit lines and a multi-modal system in Columbus. If this is something we want, what do you think Columbus needs to do differently in the future than it’s done in the past?
CS: We need all the folks who have an interest, and all the folks and entities that have a responsibility for various components of our transportation system, working together to plan a comprehensive transportation system, rather than each planning in silos. The city should be planning its thoroughfare plan in conjunction with COTA planning the next generation of public transportation, in conjunction with the county, the state and the federal agencies that are responsible for our bridges and streets and highway infrastructure.
We all need to be working together to develop a comprehensive transportation plan, and evaluating what all the options are, and arriving at a place where we know how each of these organizations and entities should be contributing to this plan. The reason that’s crucial now is because of Smart Columbus, and because we know we’re growing faster than the rate that MORPC projected a few years ago, to the point that MORPC doubled its projection.
So, quick story, people in the office sometimes get a little bit upset when the list of most congested cities comes out every year, and Columbus is pretty far down that list. “We’ll never get light rail in this town, because people see this list, and they’ll think that we don’t need it — Curtis, you got to write a letter to the editor explaining…” Explain what? That we’ve got a region where we can get around relatively easily when we compare to other metropolitan areas? I’d rather explain that we need this comprehensive plan so that as we grow the way we expect this community to grow, we stay low on that list.
We don’t want to create a problem so that then we can figure out how to solve it, we want to see the potential and build something that keeps us at a level — at least using that metric — of being an attractive community to live in even though it’s experienced this growth. And that Columbus, because of this forward-thinking planning, has managed to keep itself down that list.
So, I think that’s what it’s going to take — a comprehensive look with all of the players that have a responsibility in this transportation arena, working together to help us to be able to build a transportation system that we can get around as easily 50 years from now, after all this growth has occurred, as we can today.