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Columbus Officials Hopeful for Light Rail Funding

Central Ohio's on-again, off-again, light rail system may be on again. Ohio's largest cities are turning to President-elect Barack Obama's stimulus bill to revive some long-sought infrastructure projects. Columbus plans to ask for 200 million dollars to build a 13-mile light-rail train system.

The most recent incarnation of light rail in Columbus was a streetcar system proposed by Mayor Coleman in 2006. The idea, like those before it, had the support of MORPC - the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission. MORPC's executive director Chester Jourdan says his organization always believed that street cars could be the starting point for a larger, more robust light rail transit system.

"We always viewed that as a precursor or a first phase or as a launching pad for this regional light rail initiative," Jourdan says. "We never lost sight of that; we've always been strong supporters of that, and so as we talked about the streetcar, a lot of the questions that came up about the streetcar were Well, where does this go to?', What does it connect to?,' How does it help me get my commute from Worthington?' We saw that as a huge opportunity to build upon that conversation; the mayor re-energizing the conversation about streetcar-light rail in this community in central Ohio."

Light Rail in mid Ohio was first proposed in the 1970s and was seriously studied in the early 2000s. But paying for it was the problem. That's what brought about Mayor Coleman's more modest $103 million streetcar proposal. Chester Jourdan says light rail, at an estimated cost of $200 million, would go a long way toward reinvigorating Columbus and its environs.

"Central Ohio, or specifically the city of Columbus, is one of the largest cities in the United States without a light rail system, Jourdan says. "So if you think about being a world class city and going to compete on a global stage you want to make sure you provide transportation options. You need to provide opportunities for people to live in particular ways. And we've got a great highway system. What we need to work on next is a great public transportation system."

The light rail route would begin in downtown Columbus along High Street and end somewhere near the Franklin County / Delaware County line. Funding depends on the incoming Obama Administration's powers of persuasion. The president-elect wants Congress to appropriate an estimated $800 billion to $1 trillion, part of which would be used to modernize the U-S infrastructure, and it's hoped, jolt the sluggish U.S. economy. MORPC's Chester Jourdan sees it as a golden opportunity.

"Now with the federal economic stimulus package being talked about and being talked about in the context of public transportation, green jobs, capital improvements, infrastructure, in our urban cores, we saw this as a tremendous opportunity, along with COTA, the City of Columbus and others to be able to re-energize and move that conversation foreword once again about the north corridor light rail initiative."

Jourdan sees light rail as a magnet that will attract housing and business development.