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ODOT Interview with Jolene Molitoris: 3C Corridor

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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The Ohio Department of Transportation is responsible for a wide variety of highway upgrades and maintenance projects throughout Central Ohio, but two of the largest local projects currently in development are the Interstate 70/71 “Split Fix” and the 3C Corridor Passenger Rail system.

We recently sat down with Jolene Molitoris, Director of ODOT, to discuss both of these projects. Part one of our interview focuses on the 3C Corridor and can be found below. Part two of our interview focuses on the “Split Fix” and can be found HERE.

Walker Evans: Both the 70/71 “Split Fix” and the 3C Corridor are projects that we’ve been following pretty closely for the past few years on Columbus Underground. I think it’s safe to say that if we polled our readers, the majority would say that they are in favor of developing some form of improved transit systems in Ohio, and as a result, the conversations tend to steer more toward the discussion what the best solution may be. Do you think that after being awarded the federal stimulus funding for the 3C Corridor project that the public conversation has shifted more toward how best to implement the system and more away from whether or not the whole thing is a good idea at all?

Jolene Molitoris: Absolutely, and that is the story right now. Quite frankly, when you hear the “general public” complaining, I don’t think it is the general public at all. I think it is a really focused smaller group with specific agendas. I think part of our challenge as a society, is to figure out how to give voice to a significant portion of our citizenry who wants choice with transportation. They want an option.

In fact, I remember when we first started during the 21st Century Transportation Task Force… at the beginning, people were contacting us and asking how they could have a voice in the whole thing. They started a website and we had seven public meetings. We saw a lot of action where people were looking for someone to give them a voice because they weren’t elected officials, they didn’t work for a media outlet and their only option was to write letters to the editor or something of that nature, so they really used the website to give themselves a voice.

When the 3C started, there was the 3C Is Me website. For the same reason, we gave people some place to go so that they can know that they have some impact on things. Part of what we’re looking at is how you can listen and learn from the people who will benefit and use it in a way that you can reflect in the outcomes. There are still some people who I don’t think we’ve brought to a confidence that were trying to do anything but the ‘old school’ way of thinking. This place is not about ‘old school’. This project is about a multi-modal system that will make Ohio competitive. Our history and our geography gives us a prime position to be a leader in all types of multi-modal activities. We have changed a lot in this Department under this administration… how we do business, analyze data, etc… but some people continue to think of us by how we operated ten years ago.

WE: Going back to the 3C… Central Ohioans have shot down Streetcar and Light Rail proposals in the past decade. I believe a lot of that had to do with the fact that they were being sold as smaller “starter lines” without describing how they would fit into a larger system over time. Do you think the 3C could benefit from a stronger push to sell it as a smaller part of the larger Ohio Hub as well as an upgradable line that can achieve true “high speed” delivery in the future?

JM: First of all, I think we have to be very clear that in this department we invest every precious tax dollar with an outcome, and that is “Moving Ohio Into a Prosperous New World.” That is our mission statement. So whether we are moving people, freight products, businesses, economies, whatever… we do it with the idea of a prosperous Ohio. Which means that we have to stay competitive.

For the past forty-plus years, there has been no alternative transit choice for Ohioans. Thanks to a Governor who never quit on this subject, we were able to bring in over $400 million in federal stimulus. Our application was strong on outcomes. We will get outcomes from a 79-mph system just like transportation departments get in 15 other states with passenger rail systems like the one we’re proposing. We know that once you have service at 79-mph, you get all sorts of things that happen along the way… the economic development, the vibrancy, the attractiveness to young professionals, the desirability to university students… I could go on and on about the kinds of possibilities we have achievable with a 79-mph system. Once we have that in place, we can then build for the future. Every time you make an incremental step to go faster, you do gain more riders.

But again, at 79-mph we will be the 12th most used corridor in America. When someone is trying to capture a negative message they will focus on other things. But what we’re trying to say is, here are the facts: a 79-mph reliable, on-time, responsive, good system is going to create benefits immediately… and then we build on it. No corridor in the nation has ever started out at 110-mph. They have started out at 79-mph maximum or sometimes even less. The interesting thing that sometimes people don’t get, is that when you make comparisons to a train like the Acela on the Northeast corridor, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it only goes its maximum speed during 14 minutes of it’s route. And yet, it has still captured a significant portion of the market. It is doing quite well.

So what I think we need to focus on is what are we wanting to build by 2012. Given all circumstances, we don’t know how our time tables will be implemented, but essentially, 2012 would be the earliest implementation of anything.

Another thing I think doesn’t get discussed enough, is who is the system for. It’s for business, industry, and all of us… but it’s also for the people who are going to be our citizens in the future. And they should have a lot to say about it. A whole bunch of them are in our universities right now. 224,000 of those students are within 10 miles of a proposed transit station on the 3C line. You can look all over the country and world to find young people, young professionals, and students choosing schools or work. They look closely at the cities where they want to live. A recent Columbus Chamber study about young professionals asked what is it that we need to do that will make them call Columbus their home? The third thing on the list was an improved transportation system. So we who have these decisions to make need to listen to the Ohio of the future. I don’t think their voice has been heard enough. I feel a real obligation and responsibility to make sure they are part of this conversation.

WE: A lot of our demographic on Columbus Underground falls into the 24-40 age range… the “young and engaged”. It seems like one of the biggest concerns with not having a voice in the process at the moment is a concern that the project will not making it through the controlling board who have been showing opposition to it.

JM: I believe your audience needs to be fully engaged in the decision making. Do they think they are being represented adequately in terms of making their vision for the state a reality? I think it is critically important to the extent of our department, and beyond that through other structures, to voice exactly what they are looking for and how to make this state a great place to live. That needs to be really articulated in the halls of the general assembly and federal congress so these systems will reflect what our younger and future citizens really want.

WE: Unlike roadway projects which have a dedicated revenue source in gasoline taxes, it seems as if the financial side of the 3C Corridor has been cobbled together over time. Will we will be able to continue to grow our rail system in the same fashion without a dedicated revenue source?

JM: This fiscal year ended in June. We currently have $5 Billion in construction programs. A majority, around 80 percent of that is highway and bridge related. We have over 20,000 miles of road. The governor is very adamant that we fix and maintain what we already have first. At the same time, it really is incumbent upon all of us to recognize what kind of system is required for us to be competitive in the future. You know, I’m passionate about Ohio. I love this place. I grew up in Ohio. We have the best and the smartest people and a great work ethic. People here are generous and that’s fabulous. But we have to assure that those wonderful qualities have an infrastructure that will let them thrive. Young people are now deciding where they want to live first and then working out the job element second. That’s a much different way of thinking compared to the previous generation. We have to give every reason for the brightest and the best to stay here in Ohio and thrive here and be happy here. We have a great mayor in Mayor Coleman. He understands the transportation system that we need to have. It starts with walking and biking and Complete Streets policies. We are making progress with our partners like MORPC and the Columbus Partnership. We have 5,500 people working here at ODOT but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what it takes to build these types of systems and to maintain them. It takes way more than a village. It takes practically everybody.

Earlier, you brought up the Ohio Hub. The Ohio Hub study, that by the way was voted on 30-to-nothing in the Republican controlled Senate, gives us a picture of the future. What we are focused on is “How do we get there, how do we make this real?” At the same time, we have to have a clear message. Right now a 79-mph train and $400M in stimulus money can get a solid system up and running to begin getting those jobs and economic benefits immediately.

Recently I had an editorial board visit from the Columbus Dispatch and I didn’t go to it alone. I went with Bill Lhota from COTA because we are a system. We’ve got to stop having conversations just about high speed rail, or just about bus transit, or just about highways. We need to be discussing a system that works together. That’s what a transportation network is supposed to do. Bill and I were there to say to the Columbus Dispatch, “Please look at us as a system”. We are going to complement each other. The 3C will bring riders to COTA and COTA is going to bring riders to the 3C. We can have an all-purpose ticket system, schedules that mesh, and we’re already talking and working closely with other transit agencies. It will be the same with our regional airports.

I guess what I believe is that with a partnership of Columbus Underground readers and many others, we’re in the business of producing a transit system that will respond to the needs of the public. We don’t believe that most people are going to give up their cars. This isn’t a fight between cars and trains! If you go to a restaurant, you have a menu of options each day, and transportation should be the same way. It is really critical that we really listen and learn from other states that have had such tremendous growth due to rail development. Job growth, population growth… we need all of that in Ohio. We should be looking at this $400M in stimulus funding as something that will help us catch up, as other states have already been investing for decades.

I’m very grateful that the President put the idea on the table and thankful for the brave people in Congress who voted for the rail stimulus against some odds. They’re the ones who gave us this chance. The people who have worked on this project and our application did a remarkable job. It shows what the brightest and the best can do. Right now, we’ve said in the application that the first $25M will be focused on the final engineering design and environmental review. That work will give us more detail on the final designs and information before we can go forward with construction.

Part Two of the interview, which focuses on the 70/71 Split Fix, can be found by CLICKING HERE.

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