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Interview: COTA’s Curtis Stitt on the Next Generation of Transit in Columbus

Brent Warren Brent Warren Interview: COTA’s Curtis Stitt on the Next Generation of Transit in Columbus
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The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) recently completed a comprehensive redesign of the bus network in Columbus – their Transit System Review recommended more-frequent buses in the urban core and a host of other changes, all without increasing the overall budget. While the new network will be slowly rolled out over the course of the next two years, COTA is now setting its sites on the future – a planning process they are calling COTA NextGen will look to the public for big ideas on how the city’s transportation system should respond to predicted growth and changing demographics. 

The first of many opportunities for input is April 23rd, when COTA and lead consultant Nelson Nygaard will host two public meetings. An interactive website is also on the way, as well of lots of chances to engage through social media.

COTA President/CEO Curtis Stitt recently sat down with Columbus Underground for a discussion of the new initiative. He provided lots of information on the NextGen process, including how it fits with similar City of Columbus and MORPC plans, the likelihood of light rail being a part of the plan, and his thoughts on the impact the CBUS has had on the future of COTA.

Q: Can you start with an overview of NextGen and what people can expect over the course of the next few months?

A: Well, out of this process we hope will come a roadmap for what we should do as this community grows by half a million people and 300 thousand jobs over the next 35 years. And that’s really what we’re looking at – what will this community need in its transportation system, to keep pace with that growth. And, in particular for COTA, what should that public transportation system look like in order to provide the best connectivity that we can?

Q: You mentioned the growth estimates for the region, and the NextGen website references the insight2050 initiative, how do the two initiatives fit together?

A: The thing that insight2050 does is simply evaluate the options for growth and development, then it does an estimate of how much it will cost our community if we plan for growth in one way, or plan to grow in other ways. Inherent in that project is a suggestion that our best option is to develop more dense communities. Assuming that communities in central Ohio take that data and plan for development in that way, what is the role for public transit? Certainly the more dense the development is – in terms of population and jobs – the better service that public transit can provide with the always-limited resources that are available to us.

Q: Can you talk about how COTA will be working with other stakeholders throughout this process – the city, MORPC, suburban jurisdictions, Ohio State?

A: It’s about collaboration. MORPC has their Metropolitan Transportation Plan, the city has their mult-imodal thoroughfare plan which they’re calling Connect Columbus, and NextGen is our long range planning effort, and there are so many synergies between these three plans. We’re all looking at future transportation needs, and working together so we don’t plan in silos is important.

So as the NextGen plan continues, we will be working closely with the city, and not just the thoroughfare plan, but with the JET Task Force plan and the airport loop road study. We are in communication with Ohio State, and looking at their plans, both in terms of the development that’s going on in the campus area, and to more specific plans that CABS has for offering service to the students.

So we want this to be a comprehensive effort, and we’ve charged our consultants and ourselves with making sure that we engage the people who are conducting all of these other studies, and trying to engage the people who have been offering their comments and input to those other plans, so that we can incorporate those thoughts as well. We don’t want to hit a certain target group of people who have one idea, and the other plans are maybe hitting another group of people who might have significantly different ideas, and we all come up with plans that don’t work well together.

It isn’t that the city and COTA have ever really worked against one another, but I think in the past we’ve worked without one another. The goal here is to work together moving forward. So we create the synergies, we minimize the cost to the extent that we can, and we come up with plans that complement one another, and provide the best system we can for our community.

Q: What is final product going to look at, will there be recommendations for specific corridors?

A: Everybody wants to see what the end is going to look like before we do the work to get there (laughs). We’re in the early stages – the end will look like whatever our community suggests it will look like. We don’t want to come out as COTA and say here’s what the plan must have – the plan will provide a look at what a comprehensive public transit system should be at 2050. We’ll look at ways we can finance the implementation of that, and incrementally build it as the community grows. We won’t need the 2050 system in 2020, but what will we need in 2025, and 2030?

So, instead of telling you what it will be, I’ll tell you what it won’t be – it won’t be a plan that’s locked into any preconceived notions about mode. Could it contain light rail? Yes. Could it contains trolleys? Yes. Could it contain all bus? Yes. But we’re going to look at every conceivable means of public transportation that might benefit this community going forward. And we don’t have a preconceived notion about what is the best or what is the only…it may be a combination of all of the above.

So we’re going to plan a system that we believe works. We’ve hired some experts to help guide us through a community-wide process, we’re going to consider the input and feedback, and then once we have this plan, we hope there will have been enough public engagement, at all levels, so that we have sufficient buy-in to take the next step, which is figuring out how to fund it and build it.

Stitt addresses local transportation leaders at the recent Stand Up 4 Transportation Day event.

Stitt addresses local transportation leaders at the recent Stand Up 4 Transportation Day event.

Q: How does the NextGen process relate to the Transit System Review, which COTA just wrapped up recently?

A: The TSR was about strengthening our current service, so we have a sound foundation upon which to build for the future. We have to make sure we’re using every penny of the revenue that we get from the local sales tax, and from federal dollars, in the most effective and efficient way possible, and we have to provide the most effective service we can with those dollars. And then once we do that, then we’ve got that sound foundation upon which we can build the next generation.

So that’s how they work together, the Transit System Review is about making sure that we are doing the best today, with the resources we have today. And NextGen is about planning the next generation of public transit for Columbus and central Ohio.

By the way, the TSR isn’t done. The review is done, but the implementation of it is going to be continuing probably for a little over two years (and from now on will be referred to as the Transit System Redesign). It’ll be incrementally implemented – every four months there’ll be some changes, and then we’ll hit the big switch with the majority of those changes in 2017.

Q: Do you think the CBUS has had a positive effect – both in terms of the number of people that interact with COTA, and their impression of it?

A: Oh, absolutely, I think anybody who’s even casually watched public transportation knows about the CBUS in central Ohio. And those folks, a lot of whom would’ve never paid attention to COTA before, they recognize this as COTA looking at things differently. It’s part of us making certain that we move the needle in the right direction for this community’s goals. And all the things that you see happening downtown, to rejuvenate businesses, to make it the hottest residential area, and to attract visitors, the CBUS helps move the needle in the right direction for that.

And I think people are saying, well, COTA is doing something that helps this community. COTA is providing, not just a service for commuters and regular riders, but providing a service that meets the needs of our community. Whether I get on it ever or not, COTA is trying to drive us in the right direction with its service. So yes, folks are looking at COTA a lot differently.

I think folks in the business of trying to attract jobs to central Ohio look at COTA differently, as a result of our service to New Albany and our rejuvenated look at service to the Rickenbacker area. Ridership has been good on the New Albany route, and that helps with workforce development, because the people that are trained and made job-ready now have another option for getting from downtown and Easton to the 15,000 jobs that are in the New Albany business park.

And we’re making progress on doing something similar down in Rickenbacker. One size doesn’t fit all communities, but we’re working on what will work in that area as well, where there are lots of jobs. So all of those kinds of things that we’re doing, it’s about making our service today the best service that we can, and meeting the needs of the community.

For more information on NextGen, visit www.cota.com/nextgen

For ongoing discussion on transportation in Columbus, CLICK HERE to visit our Messageboard.

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