Will congested roads slow down business growth?

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From the April 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

After decades of big ideas and public studies, Columbus remains the largest city in the nation without passenger rail in its transit portfolio. As he has in every other annual address since at least 2006, Mayor Michael Coleman again called for more transportation options in his 2014 State of the City speech. His latest pitch calls for a study on a passenger rail line which would run from Downtown to Port Columbus.

Like his call for streetcars and intercity rail in 2006 and 2008, the mayor’s latest announcement generated buzz among Downtown advocates and young professionals. But after years of declaring the city “far too dependent on the automobile,” passenger rail remains an unrealized element in the otherwise successful private/public redevelopment charge led by Coleman since he took office in 2000.

“The mayor alone does not have the resources to make passenger rail a reality,” says Dan Williamson, the mayor’s spokesman. “While there is support for rail in many corners of the city, this alignment has not yet happened.”

Adding commuter rail to the city’s transit portfolio isn’t an issue that’s “jumping off the page” among the city’s most influential business leaders, the members of the Columbus Partnership, says Partnership CEO Alex Fischer, “because there’s not an immediate pressure point.”

The topic has come up in the course of economic development initiatives through the Partnership’s affiliate organization, Columbus 2020, Fischer says. One of the issues Columbus 2020 proactively explores is whether Columbus can be the new cosmopolitan city of the world and a global competitor without the most modern of infrastructure.

“What does that mean for mass transit, what does that mean for our airport, and what does that mean for our various intermodal means of transportation?” asks Fischer.

At some level, Columbus exists because of key transportation infrastructure that facilitates the movement of people and goods by rail, air and the interstate highway system, says Fischer. While the city’s private and public leaders have to be forward-thinking to maintain continued economic growth, Fischer thinks that fixed-guideway commuter travel is but one possible option for future transportation infrastructure.

“I think it’s just as plausible that we’ll all be riding in driverless cars in the next decade,” says Fischer. “All modes of transportation, and even those we don’t understand, should be part of the mix and a part of the solution.”

For the time being, Columbus commuters still choose their cars over the buses operated by the Central Ohio Transit Authority. While parking has proven problematic for business owners in the Short North, in 2010 the Central Business District had a total of 75,560 off-street parking spaces in private and public garages and lots, as well as 4,808 on-street free and metered spaces. On a busy workday, car commuters can find all-day parking within a three-block walk of the Statehouse for $5.

Add to that the pretax incentives and parking plans offered as company benefits, and there’s little enticement for people to leave the comfort of their cars, says Cleve Ricksecker, director of the Capital Crossroads and Discovery Special Improvement Districts, which represent roughly 800 commercial, residential and institutional downtown property owners.

A COTA board member, Ricksecker believes that a “true commitment” to a diversified mass transit system—specifically light rail and bus rapid transit--is the last step in taking downtown to its full commercial and residential potential.

Columbus has been successful in strengthening and diversifying its transportation options over the past decade. The Central Ohio Transit Authority reported an average weekday ridership of 61,000 passengers in 2013, and a 24 percent growth in annual ridership since 2006.The Columbus metro area has developed a 110-mile network of bike trails; Downtown neighborhoods are more walkable; new car- and bike-sharing programs debuted in 2013; and Port Columbus is currently modernizing and developing more direct routes to metro areas, like L.A. and the San Francisco Bay Area, where central Ohio’s emerging sectors are doing increasing business.

Whether or not fixed-guideway passenger systems are the answer, local transportation directors and metro development experts advocate for a proactive approach to the increased commuter crunch Columbus is facing by 2035.

Congestion maps in the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s current 20-year Metropolitan Transportation Plan forecast an increase in severe congestion along Franklin County’s major freeways and arterial roadways. Annual urban congestion measurements published by the Texas Transportation Institute show Columbus’ Travel Time Index (a ratio comparing drive time during rush hour peaks to non-rush periods) nearly doubled from 1982 to 2009, meaning travel times in the metro area have increased.

The lack of fixed-guideway transit hasn’t hurt economic development yet, but moving forward it may pose a threat to the Columbus region’s economic competiveness, says William Murdock, executive director of MORPC.

“Whether you’re a young professional looking for more transportation options, or you’re a business looking to recruit those individuals, not having those types of systems could be a deterrent to even more economic or population growth,” Murdock says.

Rapid mass transit with a variety of supplemental options (bus connector routes, car-sharing, bike trails) is a “competitive imperative” for American metro areas, says Bruce Katz, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute. Katz coauthored The Metro Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, a case study of successful regional economic development initiatives, including those underway in northeast Ohio. Columbus 2020 was selected to represent Columbus as one of 20 regions which took part in the Brookings Global Cities Initiative held in Washington D.C. last December.

The nation’s 15th largest city, Columbus is in the midst of a nationwide shift in demographic preferences and market dynamics, says Katz. “That has huge implications for transportation infrastructure (and) commuting patterns.”

Cuts to federal transit funding--along with a state government that shows little interest in funding passenger rail--mean that a growing metro area like Columbus has to forge a realistic transit strategy in line with its development needs and goals, and its funding capabilities.

The most vocal proponents of a passenger rail line are the city’s young professionals. The city developed a Young Professionals Initiative in 2006 to attract and retain the coveted 22-to 40-year-old workforce. The Columbus Chamber’s 2011 State of the Young Professionals Report surveyed 1,124 young professionals to find the factors that would lead them to make Columbus their permanent home.

Survey respondents cited competitive job opportunities as the city’s biggest draw; transportation ranked as the city’s least attractive feature. When asked what one thing would make the city more attractive to young professionals, 37% of respondents chose alternative and improved public transit with the addition of passenger rail.

A culture of convenience

As Mayor Coleman, Ricksecker and young professionals continue to call for light rail, the business community has yet to rally behind a fixed-guideway transit proposal.

“It’s fair to say there isn’t enough private sector support at this time,” says Williamson. “To make passenger rail a reality would require support from the entire community.”

Franklin County ranks among the highest commuter destinations in the nation, according to U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey estimates released in 2011. Among Franklin County’s 566,710 workers, 170,507 lived outside of the county, with 44,131 driving in from Delaware, 30,806 from Fairfield and 27,400 from Licking counties.

Columbus’ freeway congestion has increased and will continue to do so, yet still the city performs well against most major metros in terms of drive time and relatively limited congestion.

A bearable commute is one of several reasons many drivers have yet to choose COTA over cars, says Curtis Stitt, CEO of the Central Ohio Transit Authority. The average commute time for Columbus public transit riders in 2011 was 37.5 minutes, the lowest among peer cities according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. But reported car commute times were lower still, at an average of 21.8 minutes in Franklin County.

The convenience of having a car nearby, gaps between bus stops and commuter destinations, and limited service times are common explanations Stitt hears from non-riders. “We know these reasons people don’t want to take public transit, and we work hard to address them,” says Stitt.

Stitt himself parks and rides the No. 47 bus into his High Street office from Reynoldsburg every morning. The 23-minute ride gives him time to check his email, read the daily Dispatch and keep up with the public’s perception of COTA. When the east freeway into downtown is blocked, COTA buses have clearance to drive 35 m.p.h. on the shoulder. Stitt says he’s only beat the bus to work once in his own car.

Roughly 98 percent of the people who catch the bus to work use one of COTA’s 28 Park and Ride hubs located in Columbus’ suburbs. “You name the industry, you name the type of business, I think we have riders from all walks of work,” says Stitt.

Stitt believes the number of commuters who choose COTA even if they have the option of driving will increase as with the introduction of the Cleveland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit Project. The project is a model in cooperation between the city of Columbus and outlying suburbs (Westerville, Minerva Park and Clinton Township), Franklin County, MORPC, the Ohio Department of Transportation and COTA.

The projected $39.4 million BRT line is in the preliminary design, engineering and environmental clearance stage now, and is scheduled for a Federal Transit Administration review in October, 2014. If everything goes as planned, construction of the new route will begin as early as April 2016, with service beginning in September 2017.COTA is seeking FTA grant funding to cover 80 percent, $31.5 million, of the projected cost.

The expedited BRT commuter routes will be branded differently than other COTA buses in an effort to simplify riding and attract more commuters. The BRT will make fewer stops and come equipped with priority traffic light devices which will make commutes even quicker. The Cleveland Avenue BRT line, the first of its kind in the city, will follow a 15.6 mile route from Downtown to State Route 161, and from there up to the Delaware County line.

In comparison, the North Corridor Light Rail Transit line proposed by COTA in 2003 would have run 13 miles between Columbus’ Central Business District and Polaris. The light rail proposal came with a $528.7 million price tag, 50% of which would have been eligible for FTA funding. Annual operating costs were projected at $13.2 million, with a projected weekday ridership of 15,800 in the first year of operation.

BRT is currently COTA’s best shot for luring new Columbus riders to public transit for the foreseeable future, with a projected increase of 15- to 20-percent in overall COTA ridership in the first five years of service.

“If it’s easy for people to commute by car because there isn’t a lot of congestion or the commuting time is short, it’s going to make it easy for people to own or use cars and our communities to develop around that,” says Murdock.

Highway improvements to I-71 at Polaris Fashion Place, along I-270 at Easton and I-270 at Tuttle Mall were developed while north corridor rail studies in the early 2000s went nowhere, along with Downtown streetcar and multiple passenger rail proposals floated from the 1990s through 2006.

Intercity passenger rail proposals haven’t fared much better. Citing the cost of construction and operation, one of Governor John Kasich’s first policy decisions upon taking office in 2011 was to turn down $400 million in federal funding allocated to Ohio for the construction of a high-speed rail line that would have connected Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.

Though it may lack the scale of a catalyzing movement toward light rail development, a change in commuter culture is evident in Downtown Columbus, at car- and bike-sharing stations and walkable Downtown development districts. Rising gasoline prices, reduced transportation infrastructure funding and the preferences of younger workers who entered the job market during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression have changed the transportation conversation in Columbus and similarly sized metro areas.

Last November, Capital Crossroads and Discovery Special Improvement Districts invited a transit expert from Minneapolis-St. Paul to town to talk rail with Downtown property owners. Before a full audience at the Ohio Theater, William Schroeer, director of infrastructure for economic development with the Minneapolis Regional and St. Paul Area chambers of commerce, explained the economic forces that made light rail proposals a reality in his metro area.

“It took a long time,” says Schroeer. St. Paul rejected the initial twin-cities proposal 20 years ago; Minneapolis moved forward alone with the second-best proposal, opening the Blue Line/Hiawatha Light Rail Transit route along Minneapolis’ main thoroughfare, Hiawatha Avenue.

The 12-mile Hiawatha LRT has 19 stops between downtown Minneapolis, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America. Design and construction of the state’s first light-rail line cost $715.3 million, including $424 million in federal funds. Minnesota contributed $100 million. The remainder was covered by the Metropolitan Airports Commission ($87 million), Minneapolis’ home Hennepin County ($84.2 million) and the Minnesota Department of Transportation ($20.1 million).

First-year ridership exceeded projections by 58%. In 2010, the Hiawatha had 10.5 million riders, exceeding by 30% the projections for ridership by 2020. According to the Metropolitan Council, which operates the Hiawatha, housing development boomed along the line, as did mixed-use, office and commercial development along the rail corridor.

“When that line took off, St. Paul’s attitude changed very rapidly. They said, ‘Build that over here as quickly as you can,’” says Schroeer. A light rail line connecting Minneapolis with St. Paul is scheduled to open this spring.

With 40% of the Minneapolis downtown workforce commuting via the Hiawatha, the line has reduced the need for surface parking. That was “critical” for the city’s economic development, says Schroeer. There was too little parking to accommodate Minneapolis’ growing metro workforce. Building new lots is expensive and detracts from more valuable commercial developments, says Schroeer. “We’d rather spend our money on other things.”

Prioritizing infrastructure investments and building new financing models is key for growing metros, says Katz. “I think Columbus is well situated to do that. I think you’ve got some very strong political, civic and corporate leadership.”

Looking to the future

Public transit is a key piece of downtown Columbus’ continued urban redevelopment, says Mark Wagenbrenner, president and founder of Wagenbrenner Development. His company specializes in brownfield cleanup and urban infill projects, including Jeffrey Place, Harrison Park, Weinland Park and several other ongoing property redevelopments. Financial feasibility and public support are major concerns for any potential light rail projects, he says.

“The cost is incredibly high, as we know. We need to start planning for it. I’m not sure we’re ready for it yet. Maybe we are,” says Wagenbrenner. “Public transportation is great. We understand the benefit and the development opportunities. But it has to happen at the proper time. Finding the revenue sources—what we’d say is, a plan has to be put in place now, and is there any way to preserve routes and use opportunities?”

Wagenbrenner is taking part in Good Ideas Columbus, a program presented by Transit Columbus, a transit advocacy organization, in partnership with the Create Columbus Commission (the city-funded young professionals commission). Design teams are paired with public and private community leaders to develop creative transportation solutions for the future.

The Short North would be a logical starting point for any fixed-rail development, in Wagenbrenner’s assessment. “We’ve got the perfect opportunity to spine, with all the development and entertainment opportunities up and down High Street from Worthington all the way to Merion Village,” he says. But, he says, it is a real public education effort to get a project of that scale moving.

“We saw the mayor try to get out ahead of it last time,” says Wagenbrenner. “People don’t want to live through the construction and displacement.”

Looking back, the 2003 North Corridor LRT was the most promising of the city’s proposed rail investments. The line received the necessary FTA recommended rating for several years running, but COTA never placed the necessary 0.25-percent sales-tax referendum before Columbus voters in 2005, as called for in the proposal. Competition for federal funding increased, standards tightened and the FTA withdrew its recommendation for the North Corridor line.

“If we had struck while the iron was hot and put a sales tax measure on the ballot a lot earlier, maybe we would’ve had light rail in Columbus,” says Stitt. Today, COTA is moving ahead with new commuter initiatives and preparing to put a 0.25-percent funding renewal on the 2016 ballot.

COTA is working with the city of New Albany to design a transit line that will ferry thousands of employees to and from a six-mile-long business park in the northeast suburb. Stitt says September is the target date to begin COTA service in conjunction with New Albany shuttle services. The New Albany service line exemplifies the new ways in which COTA has begun working with suburban communities and businesses to drive regional development.

Jobs drive transit expansion, says Stitt. “We’re finding new ways to get people to those jobs.”