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Job Dispersion Away From Downtown Poses Challenge For COTA

The Central Ohio Transit Authority says it will enter competition next year for federal monies to get more workers to their job sites. Job growth often occurs in areas poorly served by bus routes and COTA faces obstacles changing its route system to serve newer employment sites. For decades, COTA has operated a spoke and hub route system. Buses travel to and from downtown where passengers often have to transfer to get to another part of town. Economist Bill Lafayette, founder of Regionomics LLC, says for a long time that kind of mass transit system made sense. But, in the last two decades. "Well we've seen a dispersion of jobs" Lafayette says just in the last ten or twelve years, even with the development of the Arena District, the number of private sector jobs in the downtown area has plummeted by more than 30 percent. "The number of private sector jobs downtown was 91,000 in 1999 and had fallen to 59,000 by 2009." Says Lafayette. While downtown shed private sector jobs, the city's perimeter is now dotted with office and light industrial parks from Grove City to New Albany to Rickenbacker. "That poses a challenge for transit." COTA Vice President, Marty Stutz, says it costs more than $100 per hour to operate a bus, large or small. And, when job sites are more dispersed it often makes little economic sense to dedicate a crosstown route to take riders from say New Albany to Metro Center in Dublin. "Public transit works best in high density areas. So, when you are taking fewer people to jobs that are dispersed outside of the outerbelt, its more expensive." Stutz says. Stutz adds that commuters who live in one suburb and work in another are often unwilling to drive to a park and ride and then spend up to an hour on a bus. Morse-Henderson is one of the few crosstown routes operated by COTA. It runs from the Meijer store at Hamilton and Morse, makes stops at Easton Town Center, and then travels city streets to the Crown Point Plaza on Bethel Road. During morning drive time the bus takes an hour and fifteen minutes to make the trip. "We have a great roadway and freeway infrastructure where you can be in many parts of the city in a shorter period of time than you can in many major metropolitan areas. So, we are challenged to compete with the automobile." Stutz says next year COTA will compete for 600-thousand dollars in federal transit funds targeted specifically to provide services to job sites not currently served by COTA…its part of a program called job access-reverse commute. Andy Taylor at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission says the funds potentially could help COTA provide transit to workers without automobiles. "For areas where they can't get to easily with transit, where there are some potential growth opportunities. Especially for maybe low-skilled work, work that doesn't require a lot of experience but that potentially could be a good wage. " Taylor says the planning commission next year will handle bids for the federal funds and COTA will have to compete with other smaller agencies and transportation companies to win the Job Access funds so any new services would be less dependent on high density neighborhoods and concentrations of tens of thousands of jobs.