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With Focus on New Technologies, is Push for Rail in Columbus Losing Steam?

Brent Warren Brent Warren With Focus on New Technologies, is Push for Rail in Columbus Losing Steam?
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Ask anyone involved in Columbus’ successful Smart City bid, and they will say that it was an extraordinary group effort – the region’s business, political and institutional leaders “stacked hands” to demonstrate a level of support for actually carrying out the high-tech ideas laid out in the application that was unmatched by any other city.

Nothing demonstrated that support better than the $90 million in additional funds pledged to the effort by the Columbus Partnership, an organization made up of the CEO’s of the largest and most influential corporations in the region.

It’s the type of unbridled support from the private sector that transit advocates have long complained has been missing whenever the topic of light rail or streetcars comes up in Columbus. (To put that $90 million figure in perspective, when former Mayor Michael Coleman proposed a streetcar ten years ago to link OSU with downtown, the estimated cost for the project was just over $100 million, and Cincinnati’s soon-to-open streetcar line will cost $102 million).

Adding to concerns about a shift in priorities is the delayed release of recommendations from the city’s Connect Columbus initiative and the Central Ohio Transit Authority’s NextGen plan, both of which were to lay out preferred “high-capacity” transit corridors.

“I don’t think it’s about one mode versus another, it’s about what the options are going to look like in the future,” says Alex Fischer, Columbus Partnership President and CEO.

A conceptual autonomous vehicle at the Easton Transit Center — Image via City of Columbus.

A conceptual autonomous vehicle at the Easton Transit Center — Image via City of Columbus.

It is clear, though, that Fischer and the business leaders he represents have an enthusiasm for driverless cars and other “next wave” technologies that is simply not there for rail.

“Some decades ago, the community at any number of levels made its decision as it relates to rail,” Fischer says. “I’ve always believed that you can’t be a world class city if you don’t have different forms of mass transit, but the question is, what form does that take on amidst amazing technological change… in a time when a kid that is born today will never have a drivers license?”

Whether drivers will be extinct within 16 years is obviously up for debate, as is the role that rail transit can — or should — play in a city like Columbus.

Jason Sudy is a city planner based in Columbus who has presented to multiple conferences on the question of autonomous vehicles and the impact they will have on cities. He thinks Columbus definitely should have invested in rail before now, but that “transportation choices evolve over time and I now suspect that we might have missed our opportunity to realize an effective rail system before AV technology is so prevalent as to completely disrupt this model again.”

“When pooled self-driving vehicles are operating in a moderate-density city, there will certainly be some sort of basic shift in the way that we move through our environment,” Sudy adds. “Does that mean that there is no chance to ever have rail here? No. But it does mean that whatever systems we decide to invest in must be linked to the larger sweeping changes in transportation in order to be effective.”

There’s also plenty of skepticism about the bold claims of transformation being offered by supporters of autonomous vehicles.

Marc Conte sits on the board of advocacy group Transit Columbus, which supported the Smart City efforts but also has been pushing for more transit options in the city, including rail. His concern is that “self-driving cars are not inherently going to build the walkable neighborhoods that people say that they want.” He also worries about “what happens when there are not enough cars to share, and not enough room on the road, like when everyone is trying to get Downtown at the same time?”

Fischer sees certain corridors — like High Street from Downtown to OSU and a route connecting the airport to downtown — as “no-brainers” for a premium transit connection, whatever that may look like (he points out that it’s not just drivers of private cars that could be replaced, driverless buses could also run more efficiently).

The idea of a hybrid transportation system that embraces the advantages of both old and new technology appears to have support from many in Columbus.

“Rail is a time-tested transportation mode for moving lots of people and goods in an efficient way,” says William Murdock, MORPC Executive Director. “It’s possible that the new autonomous technology when combined with shared models (i.e. Uber, Lyft, Car2Go) might replace some of the service traditional light or commuter rail might have provided…but it might also open up new opportunities to focus on a few high-capacity corridors with bus rapid transit, light rail, or something new.”

When Columbus was named one of seven Smart City finalists, Mayor Andrew Ginther told Columbus Underground that plans for other modes are still on the table.

“I think what we put forth with this opportunity sets the stage in which we can realize some of those other options to make it a truly multimodal system that we want for our kids,” said Ginther.

Murdock adds that the high level of engagement of business and community leaders in the Smart City competition is an overwhelmingly positive development.

“The recent enthusiasm around autonomous vehicles tells us something big – that our region’s expectations for advanced transportation options are changing fast,” he says. “We’re a quickly growing region that now expects every available option in transportation.”

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