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Transit Columbus to City: Don’t Skip Rail in Pursuit of Driverless Cars

Brent Warren Brent Warren Transit Columbus to City: Don’t Skip Rail in Pursuit of Driverless CarsConceptual composite image by Walker Evans.
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As recently as a year ago, it appeared that the stars were finally aligning (albeit slowly) for those hoping to see some sort of rail transit in Columbus. COTA’s NextGen initiative was laying out “premium transit corridors,” the city’s Connect Columbus plan was floating the idea of an underground light rail line through the Short North, and a proposal to connect Columbus to Chicago via high-speed rail continued to attract attention.

Then, the release of the recommendations from the NextGen and Connect Columbus plans was delayed, and the city appeared to be shifting its resources to the pursuit of the US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Grant, with its focus on new technology like driverless vehicles.

The business community rallied around the Smart City grant in a way that it never had for more traditional transit initiatives, leading many to wonder if the push for rail in Columbus was losing steam.

Columbus was named the Smart City winner in June, and the recently-released final application for the grant lays out a vision for the future of transit in the city that explicitly excludes rail:

The City of Columbus plans to leap-frog fixed rail through enhanced connections to transit and First Mile/Last Mile services. The City and its partners consider their bus-based mass transit system to be an opportunity to demonstrate emerging mobility solutions at a lower cost and with greater flexibility than a fixed-rail infrastructure.

Advocacy group Transit Columbus has now pushed back, starting a petition that implores the city and COTA to keep light rail, bus rapid transit (BRT), and streetcars on the table.

In an email to Columbus Underground, Transit Columbus board members laid out their argument:

Being a smart city means more than embracing driverless cars, it means investing in making Columbus a city focused on moving people. Being a smart city means building a city that is walkable and embracing a future that is people focused, not one that embraces a new era of sprawl and congestion.

The board members were quick to clarify that they support efforts to plan for new technologies, and hope that the awarding of the Smart City grant is the beginning of a broader conversation about transportation in Columbus.

The people of Columbus want transportation options, and we will need public options that will create and honor the dense, walkable future Columbus residents want. Columbus has an opportunity to leapfrog its peers by investing in a holistic transportation system that is driven by data, not by abandoning high capacity transit. We know that no one transportation solution will help us accommodate the coming growth in population, it must be an ‘all in’ solution. The future of our city is riding on the choices we make now. Will we succumb to a new era of non-sustainable sprawl or will we pick a new direction, one of people friendly, walkable development that is anchored by a multimodal transportation system that embraces the best technologies of every mode?

The group’s petition, which was posted Friday night, has cleared its goal of 1,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

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