The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) and its partners in the LinkUs initiative have released the most comprehensive vision yet for building – and funding – a major expansion of the region’s transit network.
The details were presented to a mid-March meeting of the LinkUs Leadership Coalition, a steering committee made up of a wide range of representatives from the government, nonprofit, business and advocacy communities. The meeting was recently posted on YouTube and the presentation on the LinkUs website.
Under the plan, three new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors would be built out by 2030 and another two by 2050. Significantly, the blueprint that was laid out at the meeting also calls for a major investment in improving the existing bus system, as well as building out what it terms “transit supportive infrastructure” – things like bike lanes, trails and sidewalks – throughout the region.
Overall, it would be a $8 billion dollar effort, dwarfing any recent attempt to add new transportation options or significantly improve the existing transit infrastructure of what has historically been one of the most car-centric metro areas in the country.
The majority of the funding for the initiative would come from a new, permanent, 0.5% COTA sales tax. The money raised by that tax would be further leveraged to attract about $650 million in federal funding, and to buy bonds that would generate additional funds.
Although it has not officially been decided when that new sales tax would be taken to voters, the timeline laid out in the presentation suggests that it will be this November. And if voters within COTA’s service area approve it, the new tax would then go into effect on January 1, 2023.
A spokesperson for LinkUs – which counts as its four primary partners Franklin County, the City of Columbus, COTA, and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission – declined to comment on the new plan or provide any information about when the COTA Board of Trustees might take up the issue of placing a sales tax on the ballot, stressing that the proposal could still be changed and has yet to be fully reviewed or approved by the LinkUs executive committee.
The plan outlined at the March meeting is due to be presented to a joint meeting of the steering committee and the LinkUs executive committee today, April 7.
The current COTA sales tax is 0.5%, putting Columbus behind both Cincinnati (0.8%) and Cleveland (1.0%) in terms of the amount of sales tax allocated toward its regional transit authority.
That current tax level was established in 2006, when over 70% of voters approved a 0.25% tax that is renewable every ten years. That amount was added on to the permanent 0.25% tax that was established in 1999 (when voters also rejected a larger levy that would have brought light rail to the region).
Angel Mumma, COTA’s chief financial officer, told the steering committee that the 0.5% sales tax is projected to generate “on average – between 2023 and 2050 – about $214 million annually.” COTA’s current budget, for the 2022 fiscal year, is $195 million.
The federal funding that will be sought to fund the BRT corridors requires that a percentage of the cost of the project be covered using local funds. Several speakers at the meeting explained that without the additional revenue generated by a sales tax, there is currently not a source for that “local match” funding.
“We are in a great position [to win the federal funds] because we have already advanced the work on three of the corridors,” Mumma said, adding that enough money could potentially be generated to fund the build out of additional corridors beyond the five that are prioritized in the plan. “We feel we are strongly positioned, [and] we believe that this is a conservative [financial] model; this is actually the floor of what we can provide to the community.”
Initial planning work and community outreach began in 2020 on the idea of bringing “high-capacity transit” to the Northwest corridor, which stretches from Downtown to Bridge Park in Dublin, traveling along Olentangy River Road for much of the route. Meetings were held soon after to discuss two other corridors – one that would travel out West Broad Street from Downtown, and the other that would connect Downtown and the Far East Side along either East Main Street or East Broad Street.
LinkUs representatives have touted the public outreach they’ve done so far, particularly along the three corridors, where they’ve conducted in-person and virtual meetings, held pop-up informational sessions, and commissioned surveys to gauge the level of support for different options (they also say that over 23,500 people have engaged with the process online via the LinkUs website).
The type of BRT that is planned for the corridors would be a significant step up from Columbus’ first BRT line, the CMAX, which runs along Cleveland Avenue. Buses on that route run in mixed traffic along the side of the road, whereas the latest plans for the East-West and Northwest corridors call for buses running mostly in dedicated lanes in the middle of the road.
BRT is often described as a transit alternative that can deliver some of the amenities associated with light rail – dedicated lanes, easy boarding at stations, fast and frequent service – without the high cost and long construction time of rail projects. Planners at previous LinkUs meetings have pointed to two existing BRT systems – the Red Line in Indianapolis and the HealthLine in Cleveland – as examples of what is being envisioned for the Columbus corridors.
The LinkUs initiative itself grew out of a planning effort called Insight 2050, which made the case that the region could slow sprawl and accommodate much of its projected growth by building out high-capacity transit corridors and encouraging new housing and job centers to be built along them.
At the steering committee meeting in March, Mumma stressed that the investments are designed to build out a full, regional system. The money would not just be going toward the BRT lines, but would also go toward improving existing roadways, building transit-oriented development and new bike infrastructure, expanding the existing COTA Plus system, and expanding service and increasing the frequency of the current bus network.
“It is our collective belief that it takes investments in each of these components in order to have an effective system,” she said, adding that the specific investment amounts laid out in the plan could be adjusted. “Each category could be moved up or down, with the offset coming from another category.”
The reaction from steering committee members to the presentation was largely positive.
“I’ve been the outspoken advocate-complainer in all these meetings, but I know that myself and the advocacy community are so excited about this,” said Josh Lapp, board chair of Transit Columbus. “There are people in our organizations who have been working on this stuff since 1999 – since before that, and very bad things have happened in that time in the transit advocacy space – so it’s so exciting to be a part of this and to see this happen.”
For more information, see linkuscolumbus.com.