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Streetcar forum draws mixed feelings from the public

More than 150 people showed up for a public hearing at city hall about Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman's streetcar proposal. Some people waited more than three hours to address the city council.

At 8:30 Monday night there were still a dozen or so people still waiting to express their concerns or offer up their support about Mayor Michael Coleman's proposed streetcar line. More than 50 people signed up to speak before city council. Some, however, left before their names were called - more than three hours into the public hearing.

Andrew Hall manages Endocrinology Associates, a small specialty medicine practice on West Third Avenue. Hall supports the streetcars, and said their patients, many of whom drive 100 miles or more for office visits, like the idea as well.

"They like the idea that there would be one place that they could park. They could travel up and down, they could take the opportunity to go to a restaurant in the city, do shopping, do other things," Hall said.

Many of the speakers who favored the streetcars own businesses along the proposed line. If the project is realized streetcars would run along High Street from Mound Street to Ohio State University.

But not all business owners think the streetcars would benefit Columbus. Michael Barr owns Crater's Restaurant and Bar on South High Street. He said the proposed line does nothing to help connect the different areas of downtown like the Brewery District, Columbus State Community College and the State Fairgrounds.

"I think there's a lot of potential in connecting these different areas instead of trying, using transportation as a development instead of what it's meant to be is get people from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible," Barr said.

The streetcar line, just shy of three miles, is projected to cost $103 million. City council has not yet approved the project, but Mayor Michael Coleman already has asked council members for $2 million form this year's capital budget for design and engineering. Coleman encouraged public comment Monday night, but left before anyone was permitted to speak.

Several people, like Willis Brown president of the King-Lincoln Bronzeville Neighborhood Association, expressed their disapproval.

"I have to comment on the fact that the citizens here have to accept disrespect. How is that when the mayor is here with all of his supporters he's here? The citizens that pay for this when we go to speak he leaves," Brown said.

Supporters of streetcars say they're more environmentally friendly than buses because they run on electricity. But Brown does not favor the streetcars. He said the city should consider expanding its bus routes.

"We need to encourage and develop the existing bus system. And we can design, you know, bio fuel buses that go up and down High Street. We can make them look like a streetcar. We already have stop signs already there. Why do we have to do all this other stuff," Brown said.

Brown was not alone in his comments about expanding Central Ohio Transit Authority bus routes. Many people expressed the need to expand bus routes including Ohio State graduate Matthew McCormick. McCormick, a COTA rider, called the streetcars a "gimmick."

"It doesn't address the main transit concerns that we have: getting to the airport, getting to 24 hour establishments and reliable transportation throughout the city. And it seems like it's an idea by the elites of the city, downtown business owners and it's a gimmick. And this will not solve any kind of mass transit situations," McCormick said.

But those who support the streetcars think it will encourage downtown development. Here's what some of streetcar supporters had to say.

"We're talking about an investment in economic development in the core of this region which is downtown Columbus. This streetcar is a wonderful idea and beginning of great things to come. I think it makes a lot of sense, not in and of itself, I don't think it's a silver bullet, but I do think it's an important first step to get to what I think many of us envision and that's a broader more comprehensive transit system for Columbus."

The streetcars would cost $103 million to build and $4.5 million to operate annually. Taxes to concert tickets, sporting events and off-street parking would help pay for the project, as well as increases at some parking meters. The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission has pledged $20 million to the project and Ohio State University says it would give a half million a year.