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COTA Puts Price Tag on East-West Transit Line, Will Seek Federal Funding

Brent Warren Brent Warren COTA Puts Price Tag on East-West Transit Line, Will Seek Federal FundingA map showing potential transit corridors. All images courtesy of LinkUs.
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The plan to build a Bus Rapid Transit corridor that will stretch from the far west side of Columbus to the far east side moved another step closer to reality this week.

The Board of Trustees of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) voted to approve what is known as a “locally preferred alternative” for the corridor, the first step in applying for federal funding for a project.

The two routes being prioritized for the funding are West Broad Street, which would run from Westwoods Boulevard in Prairie Township to Downtown, and East Main Street, which would run from Downtown to Taylor Road in Reynoldsburg.

A third route, running along East Broad Street from Downtown to the L Brands facility in Reynoldsburg, was also designated as a locally preferred alternative, but it will be put in the queue for funding at a later date.

COTA will begin the lengthy Federal Transit Administration process soon for the West Broad and East Main legs, officially requesting entry into project development for the New Starts, Small Starts and Core Capacity Improvements program in August.

The first two years of development will include initial design work, environmental review, more public engagement and more detailed cost estimates, although COTA has already taken the first stab at estimating a total cost for the project – about $413 million (for the West Broad and East Main legs).

Kimberly Sharp, COTA’s Senior Director of Development, cautioned that that number is very much a ballpark figure, and could change substantially by the time shovels are ready to hit the ground; “this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

A graphic from a LinkUs report shows different configurations of a BRT system with a dedicated, center lane for buses.

At the end of the two-year review period, COTA will “apply to enter a grant agreement with the federal government,” she added, “and they decide if we’ve met the threshold of being an eligible project.”

Federal funding would require a local match (typically between 20 and 50 percent of the total cost), but it is not yet known exactly how much that would be or which entities would be chipping in.

Sharp said that COTA has been working closely with the City of Columbus, Franklin County and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission on the overall LinkUs project, and that the feedback from the FTA on the collaborative effort so far has been positive.

Angel Mumma, COTA’s Chief Financial Officer, confirmed that the agency has made initial plans to direct as much as $50 million from the approximately $93 million of federal money the agency is due to receive from the American Recovery Act toward LinkUs.

“COTA values and is very much invested in the project, and we believe that we are a key partner in it,” she said, although she emphasized that the allocation of capital budget dollars are reevaluated every year and can change. “It’s very early, we don’t have all the costs associated with the initiative determined yet.”

The latest documents produced for the East-West corridor suggest that – if the project is selected to receive the federal grant – construction could start as early as 2024. COTA officials have said, though, that it could take longer and that it may not be until 2028 or later that the project is complete.

Plans for a BRT route along Olentangy River Road, known as the Northwest corridor, are still moving forward. A board vote on the locally preferred alternative for that corridor, though, may not happen until next year. When asked about the overall timeline for that project, a city official said that the goal is to have a completed project “within this decade.”

It’s also looking more certain that the type of BRT planned for both of the corridors will be a significant step up from Columbus’ first BRT line, the CMAX, which runs along Cleveland Avenue. Buses on that route run in mixed traffic along the side of the road, whereas the latest plans for the East-West corridor show that the majority of the route will feature buses running in dedicated lanes in the middle of the road.

Also approved by the COTA Board of Trustees at this week’s meeting is the purchase of the Downtown Greyhound station, where the agency plans to work with partners to build a mixed-use, transit-oriented development on the site.

For more information, see linkuscolumbus.com.

A map of the East-West corridor showing the recommendation for where buses would have their own lane in the middle of the street (solid line) and where they would mix with car traffic (dotted line).
Another map of the East-West corridor, showing the share of households with access to a car and affordable housing units along the route.
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