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Columbus Light Rail Plan Stalled

As contract talks between Columbus bus drivers and COTA drag on, the future of a light rail project is more uncertain. Supporters of the proposed half-billion dollar northern corridor project believe it could help ease the city's transportation problems. Critics say buses are far more efficient and flexible. Add to the mix COTA's ongoing financial problems and a lack of public support - in the form of tax money - and it seems the light rail project has been derailed.

Backers of commuter rail transportation had hoped these freight train tracks north of Columbus would someday run alongside another type of train - a quieter, electric commuter train that would carry passengers downtown. But their ten-year-old plan is unraveling. Known previously as the North Corridor Light Rail Transit Project, the head of the Central Ohio Transit Authority, Bill Lhota, says it now has a new name.

"Late last year we completely restructured the North Corridor project, renaming it the North Corridor Transit Project." Lhota says.

This new project not only examines light rail it also studies the environmental impact of express buses, street cars, and expanding existing bus routes. At the same time, COTA also has to weigh the North Corridor project while it works to balance its current budget and avoid a strike with bus drivers and other workers. For several years the Federal Transit Administration had given COTA a recommended status for its light rail system. But the bus company's budget woes and the lack of additional tax revenue partially derailed the proposed commuter service.

"There were plans to go back to the ballot but with COTA's problems of a year two years ago, it was decided not to seek that ballot increase until we could demonstrate competence to run the system with what we have before we think about going back for additional revenue." Lhota adds.

COTA has spent $387,000 local tax dollars on the proposal but has also attracted nearly $8.5 million in government grants. A critic of light rail says COTA's experience follows a national pattern.

"A lot of it is encouraged by federal funding that is out there."

Sam Staley is a senior fellow at the Buckeye Institute, a Columbus-based conservative think tank.

"For many people they look at these projects as if they are going to be free because the federal government is going to fund a big chunk of the capital costs." Staley says.

Staley adds that light rail planners take an impractical approach. "There's a lot of hope and faith in these investments even when it's not supported by evidence. They hope that if you build the rail, that people will get on the trains and that they will start using that rather than their automobile. The problem is that you need people to be living near a rail station or transit station before they'll start using them. And we just don't have the densities in the Columbus area to really suggest that that's going to be an effective way to reduce congestion or get people out of their cars." He says.

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission's executive director Bill Habig has watched the Columbus metropolitan area grow during the last two decades while other cities in the northeast United States have lost population. Habig, whose commission works on long-range transportation plans, predicts rail transit will attract commuters who now drive their own cars.

"It provides a higher quality, higher speed service that is separated from the traffic on the roads and freeways. I think in order to compete with the convenience of individual vehicles, transit has to be more modern and faster to attract what we call choice riders - people who have a choice of driving or taking transit." Habig says.

Habig acknowledges the light rail project has stalled and that COTA is working through its issues. But he says light rail has a future in central Ohio. The Buckeye Institute's Sam Staley disagrees. He says that local tax payers will pay the continued burden of the light rail's operation and maintenance. And if it's underused, he says, it will drag the local economy down.

"Right now I think strategically it makes a lot more sense for the central Ohio transit agency to focus on getting its house in order in terms of bus transit, and making that as effective and efficient as possible. Buses are far more flexible. They're cheaper to operate and it's easier for them to carve out niches in the transit market to make them effective. And I believe now that an investment in rail will not be effective at solving the main problem which is congestion but I think that it will also divert very important resources in the transit agency away from effective transit which is going to be more rubber tire and bus.' And I think that will make Columbus less competitive." Says Staley.

In the foreseeable future, the only COTA vehicles commuters will be boarding are buses. The Environmental Impact study currently underway for the north corridor project will be completed next year. Sam Hendren, WOSU News.