Columbus Looks Ahead to Light Rail

The Columbus Dispatch reported yesterday on plans by that city to renew plans for a light rail line that would run from Downtown north towards Delaware County, via Ohio State University and Clintonville. Democratic Mayor Michael B. Coleman, who has been mayor since 1999, has officially submitted his demand for $200 million in funds from the upcoming economic stimulus bill, suggesting that that money should go towards the cost of a $640 million infrastructure project: this long-proposed, 13-mile long light rail line.

Before we get into the specifics of the plan, there’s a basic problem: where do you get the other $440 million – or more – that would be needed to get this project off the ground? Not only did the city’s citizens reject an extra tax for light rail construction back in 1999, but the state of Ohio has little money to contribute of its own, considering the enormous budgetary hole it’s currently facing. A proposal that reached the Governor’s office to raise the state tax on gas by 13¢ to pay for transit projects has been rejected off hand by Governor Ted Strickland. Others suggest that somehow private money could fill the gap, but no corporation has stepped up to the task thus far.

And then there’s the small matter related to the fact that the FTA shot down this proposal back in 2006. That North Corridor project was supposed to be funded by the rejected sales tax, so by 2004, the FTA suggested that it could not pay for 50% of the line’s cost – the typical federal contribution – if local money wasn’t assured. Back in 2006, then, the Mayor came up with an alternative, a downtown streetcar system, that would follow the route of the planned light rail line downtown, running 2.8 miles from Downtown to the Ohio State University along High Street. Future extensions planned would have circulated the trains in the Downtown, providing access to the Arena District, the Brewery District, and the Topiary Garden. Project proponents suggested the streetcars would cost less and be more effective than the light rail line, but by July last year, the mayor had called of the plans for this system as well, having been incapable of finding an efficient way to finance it.

In some ways, this plan will combine the mayor’s recent efforts for a downtown streetcar system with the light rail line. It would run along High Street to OSU before following existing freight tracks around 10 miles north. It would also use cheaper and shorter streetcars instead of light rail trains, meaning lower (and less expensive) platforms, a smaller carrying capacity, and a slower commute. But that change might reduce the system’s cost.

All of which points to the most elemental flaw in this proposal: the system hasn’t been completely designed! If the infrastructure stimulus bill is meant to sponsor immediate construction (and therefore jobs), this proposal, which may be good in the abstract, is no help. Unless the city and its transit system can get the system ready for use in the next nine months, it looks like this funding proposal is going to go nowhere fast.

7 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • I don’t know if not being designed is a big problem. It would actually be a good chance to see if design build for new light rail projects could be done. Also, it really shouldn’t take long to insert tracks on a street. It’s a surface line, so i see less problems than one might think. Remember the Seattle streetcar went from idea to running in 5 years. I think this could go faster.

  • You’re right – you could put the tracks into the street fairly quickly. And the design component of that is not too complicated. But the section of this line extending out on the existing freight tracks is going to take more to design… and it certainly won’t fit in the 90-days to 1-year timeline that Oberstar is proposing for these infra projects.

  • But doesn’t that mean you can start the project with a design build contract, and by the time you get to the extra design that might be needed for existing ROW you would have it done? I imagine that a gross estimation on basic engineering could be done in a year…

  • Right, that’s true, and in fact, most of the long timetables on these projects are more bureaucratic than anything else. After all, the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis fell down, was redesigned, and rebuilt in thirteen months. And now that I’m looking into it, it looks like the contract was awarded exactly 364 days before the bridge reopened to the public. That’s what you call a stimulus. If we can make projects all around the country act like that, we could do a lot more…

  • This would have been a wonderful thing for the city of Columbus, had it worked out; for such a large city to have virtually no public transit (COTA doesn’t count), is a very sad thing. Unfortunately for the city, it’s also a brain drain. I’m leaving for Chicago as soon as I graduate in June, just as my brother did.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I don’t see why they can’t dust off the old blue prints of the old streetcar system and build the tracks in the exact space in the streets where the old ones ran. Most of the water mains and other things would most likely be set up with the old streetcars in mind in the older parts of town. There were streetcars out there in the 1930′s that could go 90 miles on hour.

  • Keith Morris

    It’s now 2011 and not only did light rail get shot down, but the (sub par) streetcar plan was officially left dead in the water with the mayor announcing that rail projects are not being pursued now, nor are they going to be considered any time for the foreseeable future.

    http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2011/02/10/Columbus_no_longer_planning_for_streetcarsx_light_rail.html

    Columbus has the worst combination of apathetic urban residents and pro-sprawl city “leadership”.

    The urban residents let the suburbanites dictate where our transportation dollars go, which is why in the past decade hundreds of millions have gone toward adding more lanes for their sprawling arterial roads and no serious improvements have been made whether it’s mass transit or accommodating non-auto vehicles such as bikes and scooters.

    Speaking of Columbus’ streetcar system, the city should have chosen a street that was not already revitalized (N High St has already been largely revitalized and gentrified in the Short North stretch) and chosen another urban corridor that needs the boost in investment (W Broad which has plenty of empty urban commercial blocks). The city, however, was clearly not serious in having this plan go forward since they didn’t even have a master plan with even a handful lines. Instead, the commercial streets in neglected neighborhoods which could have used a streetcar line have seen the number of abandoned homes nearly double from 3,200 in 2007 to 6,100 as of Feb., 2011: just four years made this difference. The death of the streetcar line doesn’t just mean that we’re stuck with a crappy bus line, but instead bodes ill for *huge* urban neighborhoods like Linden and the Near South where their downward spiral is approaching the point of no return: you already need to have your home prepped for home invasions and expect to be accosted by an armed robber as a resident of these neighborhoods, accepting it as an inevitability.

    As a result, urbanites who want a decent quality of urban living where you can easily get from point A to B without a car are all giving up on changing the status quo. It doesn’t matter if you get involved with the city by participating in local transportation meetings and communicating with city officials. They’ve already made up their minds beforehand and already have ties behind the scenes with those they are awarding contracts to for each pre-determined project. All you have to do is look at the city’s transportation projects overview page to see that all that they’re doing now and in the future is to ensure that most roads within city limits prioritize rush hour commuters.

    On my now defunct Columbus blog I had exposed that ODOT was using data that was over a decade old to justify the expenditure of over $1.6 billion on a 2 mile stretch of highway bordering Downtown (that’s over $800 million per mile of highway) that is no longer needed as evidenced by their own more recent data showing a huge drop in drivers due to the recession. ODOT acknowledged this drop in front of Columbus city council and yet they voted unanimously in favor of the project going forward. There was no outrage from the public when I revealed this whatsoever.

    Anyone living in Columbus and thinking that we’re on our way to being a real city, ie one where you can easily get from point A to B without a car, is sorely mistaken and wasting their time here when there are other cities that, while not perfect, make clear with their actions that they are embracing their urbanity and support it with good mass transit. No wonder there’s virtually nothing on Columbus on this website.

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