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Never Built Columbus: Transit

Brent Warren Brent Warren Never Built Columbus: TransitA plan produced by the Von Roll-Monorail company called for a multi-modal transit center near Nationwide Boulevard.
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Here’s a scene from an alternate universe – an OSU student boards a streetcar at 11th Avenue and takes it down High Street to Nationwide Boulevard, where she walks down some stairs to a boarding platform to catch a train to Cleveland for the holidays (oh, and her brother arrives from his home on the Near East Side via monorail).

Other options for arriving at this Downtown multi-modal transit hub include a light rail line with service from Polaris and, for those who prefer a more active mode, a city-wide network of protected bike lanes.

These were all actual ideas that were proposed for Columbus, and none of them were built. Some of the scenarios are more far-fetched than others – the monorail was probably never that close to happening, for example – but others actually came extremely close to happening. The streetcar proposal had the support of a popular mayor and a significant funding commitment from The Ohio State University, while the idea of connecting all of Ohio’s major cities with passenger rail won the support of the federal government in the form of a $400 million grant.

The light rail proposal seemed likely to gain both federal and state funding, but voters rejected a sales tax increase to pay for the local share of the project.

Another idea to consider – if even one of these proposals were completed, would it have spurred greater demand and/or acceptance in Columbus and resulted in more investment? What kind of light rail network would we have now if that single line had been built 20 years ago? Denver opened its first light rail line in 1994 and currently boasts a 58-mile rail network with eight separate lines.

With our Never Built Columbus series, we take a look back at some of the most interesting local projects and proposals that never quite made it off the drawing board. When it comes to transit (much like stadiums and arenas), Columbus has had a lot of proposals that fit into this category.

Read on for a breakdown of the most significant proposals of the last two decades, as well as some thoughts on what’s next for Columbus.

A proposed transit center near the convention center, from the early 2000s.

The 3-C Corridor

It was almost exactly ten years ago when the idea of connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati with passenger rail service appeared to make the shift from long-hoped-for plan to reality. On January 28, 2010, the federal government announced that Ohio would receive $400 million in stimulus funds for what was officially known as the Ohio Hub project. John Kasich, however, beat Ted Strickland by two percentage points in the 2010 gubernatorial election and immediately set out to kill the program.

Although Kasich had claimed during the campaign that he could take the money and use it for roads, it was clear that the Obama administration would withdraw the funds if Ohio wasn’t going to use them for passenger rail – and that’s what it did, sending the money to other states that hadn’t canceled their rail plans.

“Definitely a sad moment for Columbus,” says transit advocate Josh Lapp, who recently discussed the 3-C plan in an interview with Columbus Underground Co-Founder Walker Evans. “It really would’ve been our opportunity as a city to better-connect ourselves to other cities in Ohio, and [to] become a hub for passenger rail in the state.”

The plan called for trains topping out at 79 mph, but the focus of its critics was on a much-publicized estimate of the train’s average speed from Cleveland to Cincinnati. Factoring in stops – based on an early proposed schedule – the train would’ve averaged 39 mph, although tweaks to that schedule could’ve brought the average speed up to 46 mph.

Lapp points out that the intention was always to make steady track and service improvements in order to speed up the trains. In Illinois, which got a portion of the money that Ohio rejected in 2010, trains on the existing Chicago-to-St. Louis rail line already reach 110 mph, with plans underway to speed them up even more.

Future Outlook – Passenger Rail

Most of the talk about passenger rail in recent years has been about connecting Columbus to Chicago. Interest in the futuristic hyperloop idea has actually spurred some investment in studying the corridor for passenger rail, an effort that is still underway.

Lapp thinks that there may even still be life in the 3-C idea, pointing out that our current governor, Mike DeWine, has not been as hostile to alternative modes of transportation as Kasich was – he recently oversaw an increase in the state’s transit funding.

Streetcars

Michael Coleman, the mayor of Columbus from 2000 to 2016, first proposed bringing streetcars to the city in his 2006 State of the City address. A 42-member working group would go on to recommend three potential routes, with the one traveling up and down High Street – from 11th Avenue to the Brewery District – gaining favor as the initial line.

The effort to fund the project ran into problems almost immediately, as the economic downturn of 2007 led to a city budget crunch and, eventually, layoffs. A plan floated in 2008 would’ve used a $12.5 million contribution from OSU and a surcharge on hotel rooms, events and parking spaces along the route to pay for the $103 million system (and to keep it running).

City Council voted the proposal down, and three years later, the mayor’s office officially conceded that streetcars were no longer part of the city’s future plans.

The initial proposed streetcar route – from www.xingcolumbus.com.

Future Outlook – Streetcars

COTA unveiled its CBUS circulator in 2014 — a free bus that connects the Brewery District, Downtown, and the Short North. The CBUS offers an easy-to-use option (on a popular route) for visitors and others who may not be regular COTA riders.

In other words, it serves as something of a “pedestrian accelerator,” much like advocates hoped the streetcar would. Although the CBUS does not offer the permanent infrastructure investment that streetcar proponents say encourages development, that sort of infill development has been happening anyway along High Street in the Short North and Downtown.

The Short North stretch of High Street has also been the site of a significant streetscape improvement project. Already completed in the core of the neighborhood, the work continues farther to the north, with an emphasis on pedestrian-friendly amenities like wider sidewalks and bump-outs to calm traffic and make it easier for people to cross the street.

It doesn’t appear likely that the new streetscape will be torn out for a streetcar line anytime soon, and there hasn’t been much buzz about streetcars in other parts of the city.

There has been talk of a second circulating bus route – Transit Columbus recommended one that would connect the new Crew stadium with the Discovery District.

A map from the monorail report shows a potential expansion of the system. It was produced before Ameriflora ’92, the international horticultural exhibition held at Franklin Park.

Light Rail

Columbus has seen several proposals for light rail come and go over the years. (Light rail generally runs on its own, separated right of way, unlike streetcars, which share space on the street with cars).

The 1999 COTA levy request contained two separate issues – a 0.25% sales tax hike that would provide a new source of permanent funding for the agency, and an additional 0.25% sales tax that would have expanded the bus system and built a light rail line from Polaris to Downtown. The first issue passed with 57.5% of the vote, while the second failed with 44.7% of the vote (or by about 22,000 votes).

Although that vote has been cited for years as evidence that Columbus residents will not vote to approve major transit investments, some warn that it’s dangerous to put too much weight on a single ballot issue from over 20 years ago.

“I always remind people that voters didn’t realize that rail was even on the ballot… the ballot language never used the word ‘rail,'” says Marc Conte, a Transit Columbus board member, who adds that a post-election survey conducted by COTA showed that many voters hadn’t heard about the proposal before voting, and didn’t understand the difference between the two issues.

In the next decade, COTA CEO Bill Lhota worked to steer the authority away from rail and toward a renewed focus on improving its bus service. That’s why, he said, he “drove a spike through the heart of light rail in 2005,” according to reporting in the Columbus Dispatch.

In 2006, voters approved an additional 0.25% sales tax – on top of the permanent tax approved in 1999 – and in 2016 they renewed that support for another ten years. Both levies promised support for the bus system, not light rail.

A plan did emerge in 2009 that was something of a merging of the 1999 light rail plan with the 2008 streetcar one. Starting at Lazelle Road near Polaris, the line would have followed existing railroad tracks to 18th Avenue, where it would have veered west toward High Street and run in the street to the southern edge of Downtown.

That idea failed to win federal stimulus money and has not been heard from since.

In 2015, COTA kicked off its NextGen initiative with a call for “premium transit corridors,” and when the final plan was approved two years later, it featured recommendations for those corridors, but none of the projects were actively pursued.

Similarly, the city’s Connect Columbus plan floated some provocative ideas around the same time (like an underground light rail line through the Short North), but the plan, when it was eventually released, was never really promoted by the city and quickly faded from memory.

The final map from COTA’s NextGen plan, released in 2017.

Future Outlook – Light Rail

In recent years, Central Ohio’s planners, transit experts and elected leaders have funneled most of their advocacy for a major regional transit investment into the Insight 2050 and Corridor Concepts initiatives.

The Corridor Concepts plan, in particular, calls for dense development and “high-capacity transit” along five corridors in the region.

The plan does not advocate for any one mode over another, but it does recommend carving out physical space along each of the corridors that is exclusively dedicated to transit.

We could find out within the next year what type of transit solution will be pursued for the Northwest Corridor, and the planning process for other corridors could start before that one is completed. City officials have said that they want to see a recommendation that can be funded and built within five years.

It does seem clear, though, that the preference among the current crop of decision-makers – including COTA President and CEO Joanna Pinkerton – is to make that initial investment in some variety of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, not light rail.

Rendering of a conceptual makeover for High Street, from the 2010 Downtown Strategic Plan.

Bike and Pedestrian Infrastructure

Plenty of plans for better bike infrastructure in Columbus have been made over the years, and most of them continue to sit on a shelf. When the city’s first protected bike lane was unveiled in 2015, officials characterized it as just the first of many such lanes, but a larger network of protected lanes has not materialized.

Going farther back in time, the 2010 Downtown Strategic Plan called for two protected lanes on Broad Street, one moving in each direction.

Another idea from that 2010 plan was a pedestrian and bike bridge that would connect the Arena District to the Scioto Peninsula. Although that particular bridge hasn’t happened, it does appear that a pedestrian bridge will be built nearby – one that connects the Olentangy Trail directly to Nationwide Boulevard and the new Crew stadium site.

A rendering of Broad Street from the 2010 Downtown Strategic Plan.

Future Outlook – Bike and Pedestrian Infrastructure

The city hasn’t committed to building more protected bike lanes, even with electric scooters potentially creating another constituency for them. Two separate demonstration projects, though, show that there is an interest in experimenting with strategies for keeping cars out of travel lanes in order to open them up for bikes, scooters and buses.

Officials have also stressed that the specific proposals that come out of the Corridor Concepts process will address pedestrian and bike infrastructure, along with transit recommendations.

There’s also been an effort – still in its early stages – to inject some visionary thinking into how best to utilize and connect Central Ohio’s five major waterways.

Lessons Learned?

It wouldn’t be fair to write so much about all these missed opportunities without pointing out some of the things that have actually been built.

For example, a lot of progress has been made on the region’s off-street trail network – major gaps in the Central Ohio Greenways system have been filled in and significant investments have been made to improve and expand the overall network.

COTA unveiled its first BRT line – the CMAX, which runs along Cleveland Avenue – in late 2017. Even without its own dedicated lane, COTA has reported a significant increase in ridership along the line.

The innovative C-Pass program doesn’t involve any physical changes to infrastructure, but it has dramatically increased bus ridership Downtown and, for the first time, secured a commitment from local property owners to help pay for a transit initiative.

In 2017, COTA unveiled the first redesign of its bus network in 40 years, increasing the number of routes with frequent service and expanding night and weekend service. And more recently, COTA finally rolled out its long-promised mobile payment option.

Despite the shift in focus (away from rail) that seemed to result from Columbus being awarded the Smart City grant in 2016, the effort did inspire increased investment in transportation from the region’s business and institutional leaders. And, although the results delivered by Smart Columbus have not been as dramatic as many imagined they would be, we have seen two autonomous shuttle routes established, new “Smart Mobility Hubs,” and a push to support electric vehicles that has seen some results.

In late 2018, when we asked a group of local transit advocates their thoughts on the future of alternative transportation in Columbus, we got a range of answers. Yes, there was frustration about the broken promises and grand plans that have not come to fruition, but also excitement about the impact that scooters and electric bikes – and even things like better data collection and connected vehicle technology – could have on our city.

The city doesn’t seem focused on building more protected lanes for bikes (or scooters) right now, but that could change quickly – better bike and pedestrian infrastructure remains the most cost-effective ways for cities to expand mobility options.

For those who want to see major, headline-grabbing investment in public transit in Columbus, though, a lot seems to be riding on the Corridor Concepts plans. Although the Northwest Corridor project could provide that – and other corridors could follow soon, with many suburban communities already signaling their support for the idea – there are many challenges to overcome before work could start on any of the five corridors.

As for inter-city passenger rail, it remains an open question whether fast trains will continue to be a part of the Columbus-to-Chicago planning, or if the unproven hyperloop will win out in the battle for local attention and dollars.

Will some – or all – of the latest plans for better transit in Columbus be cast onto the Never Built heap? Stay tuned.

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