“Stimulus Could Jump-Start Light Rail”

Published Feb 14th, 2009 for The Lantern.

A project thought to be dead in the water might be back on track. Planning for the North Corridor light rail in Columbus could begin within the next couple months when the economic stimulus bill is finalized.

“There is significant transportation funding in the stimulus package including urban rail, state rail and innovative transit projects,” said Mike Brown, communications director for Mayor Michael B. Coleman. “The package is not final yet, but we are one of the early people that could qualify for funding.”

Mayor Coleman is requesting $200 million in support for the light rail project in the stimulus package. The stimulus package does not specify individual projects, but Ohio and the Ohio Department of Transportation will receive a lump sum for infrastructure.

The light rail concept has been debated before and was shelved in the summer of 2006 when the federal government denied COTA funding.

“The Bush Administration was so anti-train, and refused to fund any more rail projects,” Brown said.

Columbus is the largest city in the country without an urban rail transit system.

“Right now, High Street and Cleveland Avenue, from downtown to the north side of the city, carry 36 percent of COTA’s ridership,” Brown said. “The rail line would take significant traffic off those roads, in the most congested part of the city.” COTA has an average weekday ridership of nearly 55,000 people, and it has been growing as more people choose buses over cars.

The line could connect downtown’s businesses and attractions to the Convention Center district, Short North, Ohio State University, and neighborhoods and businesses as far north as the Delaware County line.

“We are hopeful,” said Marty Stutz, communications director for COTA. “As soon as the funding becomes available we are ready to restart the project.”

The route is not finalized and is open for further engineering plans and other ideas. “Our intention is that OSU students will have the same access to the rail as they do to the bus system today.”

Despite the hefty cost, Brown says the light rail would pay off.

“Yes, rail has huge startup costs,” he said. “But once they’re running they’re actually very efficient, much more efficient than cars.”

And efficiency isn’t the only benefit. Stutz said the rail system would create jobs and profit for Columbus.

“The advantage to these types of projects is that other developers move in to capitalize on the route of the rail,” Stutz said. “In Portland, Oregon, even though it is a different type of city, they saw hundreds of millions of dollars come in.” According to studies by the Streetcar Working Group, which analyzed the project, new transportation routes could lead to 3,000 jobs, 1,500 new housing units and 150,000 square feet of new street retail space.

Even if the stimulus is approved, it may be years before any trains come to Columbus.

“We would start a community conversation to bring in the other stakeholders and hear their ideas,” Stutz said. “This includes OSU students and employees.” After this dialogue, engineers would design plans and construction could begin within two years. “It’s been debated for 20 years,” Brown said. “All we’re arguing is that it’s time for us to quit talking and get to work.”

Past debates proposed a streetcar system, but proponents today prefer the light rail. The difference between the two is size and speed. The streetcar is essentially a bus on rail, Brown said. “Light rail is three or four cars, can carry more people and travel much faster than streetcars.”

The proposed project would also be in-line with the goals of Gov. Ted Strickland’s 21st Century Transportation Priorities Task Force, according to government reports.

Green technology is another hot word in politics and plans for future development. “Mayor [Coleman] has advocated that a lot of this money should be focused on green infrastructure, green construction projects, things like rail,” Brown said. “We shouldn’t just be building the same old highways we’ve always built. It has to be a mix; we have to keep fighting for that smart mix of transportation funding that helps us get alternatives.” But it is all up in the air as Congress battles over the stimulus package. “We won’t know until the money reaches the state, and then we work with ODOT and the governor,” Brown said. The money will not finance the entire project, but should fund the initial stages of planning.

If the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives reach an agreement on the stimulus today, it is likely that President Obama will sign it by Monday.

“We’ll find out when we find out,” Stutz said.