How we’ll get around in 2020 Featured

9:50am EDT July 22, 2002

With orange construction barrels lining nearly every major highway in Central Ohio these days, and with unemployment remaining at historic lows, it’s no wonder advocates of mass transit are finding a more attentive audience in business commuters and private employers.

In June, the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce endorsed two tax levies which, if approved by voters Nov. 2, would allow the Central Ohio Transit Authority — better known as COTA — to dramatically expand its bus service. In addition, discussion about adding passenger rail between Cleveland and Columbus has surfaced again in anticipation of the eight-year Interstate 71 road widening and resurfacing project slated to begin next spring.

These and other transportation issues are pivotal to the future of our city. Here’s a closer look at the issues.

Falling short

Ron Barnes realizes COTA has its flaws. Its hours of operation aren’t long enough. Its geographic reach isn’t wide enough. Its ability to ease traffic congestion isn’t great enough.

“We try to do what we can with the money we have,” says Barnes, general manager and CEO of COTA. “We revise routes as need be, but we can’t meet all the needs.”

That’s why the board at COTA is asking voters to approve two 0.25 percent sales tax increases — one temporary and one permanent — next month. The 10-year tax request would replace an identical tax that expires in January 2000. The permanent tax , Barnes says, would allow COTA to dramatically expand and improve its services.

“We’re not meeting the needs of the community today and if we only received one [tax levy], we would continue not meeting the needs of the community tomorrow,” he says. “If they both fail, we wouldn’t be able to operate — at all.”

So just what will these tax levies buy for the business community? Here’s a sampling:

Later hours. “We’ll start to look at expanding hours on some of our routes,” Barnes says, noting a dozen of the most popular bus routes would remain in operation 24 hours a day. In addition, local service on all routes would be extended to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays. “If we had later, more frequent service, we could better serve the community.”

Shorter waits. “If we make it difficult for people to use public transit, they’re not going to use it,” Barnes says. “If I have to wait 30 minutes or an hour for a bus, I may not ride. If buses are every 15 minutes or less, that’s more appealing.”

To this end, Barnes envisions increasing his current fleet of 314 buses to roughly 560 — a 78 percent increase. In addition, he wants to add more bus stops — roughly 42 percent more — and build 16 more transit centers, similar to the one being piloted in the Linden area now, to accommodate increased bus flow.

Faster commutes. Adding passenger rail from suburban areas to downtown is one way Barnes sees for easing traffic congestion on the highways. “We’re looking at rail as an alternative to move people around the community,” he says.

The first rail route to be added under COTA’s plan would run north from downtown to the Crosswoods area, near I-270 in Worthington. This line would be added in 2005 and would likely connect with any I-71 rail route used to link Columbus and Cleveland during the prolonged road widening project set to begin on that highway next year. Seven more passenger rail routes would be added around Central Ohio to speed worker commutes by the year 2020, according to the COTA plan.

“Buses will continue to be the mainstay of this organization, but rail will play a key role in getting traffic off congested areas,” Barnes says.

Better control. Passage of the two COTA levies would allow the introduction of hi-tech systems to more efficiently run Central Ohio’s transit system. For example, a Global Positioning System — which uses satellites to pinpoint the exact location of moving and stationary objects anywhere in the world — would allow COTA passengers to track the precise time a bus was going to arrive at their stop, rather than relying on a pre-printed schedule of estimated arrival times. It would also allow COTA’s management to route buses more efficiently.

“If two buses are traveling right behind each other because one is off schedule, we don’t know that now until one of the drivers calls in to say, ‘I’m off schedule,’” Barnes says. “This will enable us to do a better job, control costs and provide better service by turning one of those buses around.”

In the meantime

While Barnes awaits the fate of COTA’s two levy proposals, he’s actively pursuing ways to make its existing service more useful to Central Ohio employers. He recently created a Mobility Manager position at COTA, intended to serve as a transportation consultant to area businesses to help find the most efficient ways to get employees to and from work.

“I think providing access to jobs is the biggest contribution COTA makes to this community,” Barnes says.

He’s also considering ways to overhaul COTA’s Employer Pass Program.

“The pass program we have now is very static,” Barnes admits. “We’re looking for ways to enhance that. We need to create additional incentives to use public transit.”

The current program allows employers to offer tax-deductible commuter transit benefits to employees by subsidizing 50 to 100 percent of a monthly COTA pass or simply providing an on-site location where COTA passes can be purchased. Under the program, employers may contribute up to $65 per month tax-free per employee.

“Employees can also use pre-tax dollars to purchase passes,” Barnes adds.

Another way Barnes is hoping to better serve the business community is by using part of a $670,000 federal grant to expand COTA’s “reverse commute” program, which routes buses from downtown out to the suburbs during the morning rush and back again at night, instead of the traditional suburbs-to-downtown commute.

“The workplace is shifting from downtown to suburban areas,” Barnes says. “There are about 85,000 workers downtown and about 175,000 to 200,000 in and around [Interstate] 270. We are getting [workers] out to Rickenbacker, the Eastons, the Tuttles, the Worthingtons. But we’re looking to grow that program.”

That’s important, since the lingering labor crunch has employers throughout Central Ohio clamoring for more ways to bring additional employees into their areas. Barnes recently received a call from one such employer who was thinking of leaving the area all together because the company needed 100 more employees along with a way to get those people to and from work 24 hours a day.

“I’m going to go in there with the mayor and ask them, ‘What type of needs do you have short and long term?’ and ‘What can we do to better serve your needs?’ Because of the work force development issue, it’s critical that we do these things.

“Our dynamic community is ever-changing,” Barnes summarizes. “We need to customize our services to fit the needs of the community.”

How to reach: Ron Barnes at COTA, 275-5850; barnesrl@cota.com

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.