Columbus Light Rail Streetcar

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.