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COTA Update: Free Fares Continue, C-Pass Extended and More

Brent Warren Brent Warren COTA Update: Free Fares Continue, C-Pass Extended and MorePhoto by Walker Evans.
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The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) continues to make adjustments to its schedule and operations, nearly eight months after the agency’s first pandemic-related service cuts.

After another round of service changes in September, COTA has now restored service to 78% of its pre-COVID routes, according to a presentation given during a virtual public meeting earlier this fall. Many lines are now running more frequently than they were over the summer, and the hours of service have been extended (mostly to a 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. schedule).

The new schedule is the latest in a series of steps the agency has taken to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, including initially cutting back service in mid-March, then making all bus rides free and requiring passengers to board the bus at the side door instead of at the front. COTA also implemented a policy to cap the total number of passengers on a bus at 20 and, on April 15, started requiring passengers to wear masks.

Although COTA officials have always warned that the free fares will not continue indefinitely – and even suggested the policy could end over the summer – the agency has yet to share a timeline for when fare collection will resume.

At the September service change meeting, COTA’s Public and Media Relations Manager, Jeff Pullin, explained to riders that the agency has plans to install protective shields at the front of each bus, where fare collection takes place.

“Eventually, we’re going to have protective barriers installed for our operators, so you’ll be able to board at the front door again,” he said. “And when that happens, we will reinstate fares.” 

“When we do return to fares, we will…make sure customers in need have access to free and reduced-fare passes,” added Pullin, in a follow-up email to Columbus Underground. “Customers will be able to use paper passes and cash on board when we return to fares.”

In Other COTA News:

As part of the anticipated return to fares, COTA took action at its last board meeting to expand the network of retail locations where riders can use cash, credit or debit to load money onto passes or onto the COTA Connector app.

Starting in 2021, the number of retail locations will gradually expand, growing from 42 currently-available spots to over 400.

The new system will also allow for fare capping, meaning that it will track how many rides are taken in a month, for example, and stop charging for new rides once the price of an unlimited monthly pass is reached.

At its October meeting, the COTA Board of Trustees also voted to extend through 2025 the C-Pass program, which provides free rides for some Downtown workers.

The agency’s on-demand service, COTA-Plus, which was first launched in Grove City and more recently rolled out in Westerville, Northeast Columbus and New Albany, may be coming to the South Side. At the public meeting in September, a COTA official said that the service could launch in the neighborhood before the end of the year.

For more information, see www.cota.com.

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