By Eric Davies, Board Chair

A look back at 2012 shows public transit’s role in transportation and community development continues to gain ground around the US, and here in central Ohio the turn in this direction is occurring as well—just a bit more slowly.

Nationally Hurricane Sandy became one of the landmark, and obviously tragic, events of the year. The storm for a time crippled all modes of transportation, and yet buses were running within a few days, most regional and intercity trains were back on schedule within a week or less, and even the subway system—partly flooded by salt water during the storm—was back on line within on most lines within one to two weeks. The existence of a multi-modal infrastructure including walkable neighborhoods, roads/highways/bridges, subways, light rail trains and intercity trains to other surrounding and coastal cities have allowed a multi-faceted and more elastic recovery. Even if one mode takes a stronger hit, having multiple modes creates resiliency. On the other hand, the force of this natural event also brought to light the cracks in our nation’s infrastructure. Even where US transit systems are the most comprehensive, a national hesitancy to adequately maintain and fund transportation infrastructure, among others, leaves the nation falling behind needs and shifting demands.

The demands for more and better transit have become evident through trends that have played out in local metropolitan regions across the nation this year. In 2012, nationally more than 70 percent of the 60 local transportation-related levies, most to fund the expansion of local transit systems along with related infrastructure, were approved by voters. Amtrak ridership nationally has grown by 3.5 percent in the past year, and 49 percent in the past 10 years while vehicle miles traveled continues to decline. Yet political officials at the state and national levels continue to shy away from, or ignore, the need to push for funding for this critical infrastructure that will both ensure the nation has the transportation systems it needs to meet public demands, and that also promises the creation of public and private jobs.

Ohio’s political leaders in particular have pushed back attempts to expand funding and infrastructure for local transit systems as well as intercity passenger trains in Ohio. In late 2012 the Columbus Dispatch reported that Governor John Kasich told the Ohio Contractor’s Association, in reference to the potential sale of the Ohio Turnpike, that change is coming and they should not fear it. “If you’re not willing to take chances, if you’re not willing to innovate, you’re going to go backwards, and I don’t want Ohio to go backwards,” the governor said.

Yet in terms of developing multi-modal transportation infrastructure, Ohio has proven itself at best stagnant and potentially moving backwards. The state already per capita pays far less for public transportation than neighboring states, including less populated ones such as Indiana and Michigan. Ohio also pushed away intercity passenger rail funds that other states, including Michigan, Illinois and Maine among others, are now capitalizing upon. It is time for Ohio officials to see that demands are changing, and the state does need to be innovative and take chances or we will fall increasingly behind our peers on the national and world stage.Locally trends have signaled a slightly better picture despite the state’s languid nature toward any mode of travel other than automobiles. The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) showed the largest percentage increase in bus ridership of any major transit system in the nation in 2011. In 2012, COTA ridership so far has leveled off, partly due to an early summer labor strike, but growth in service and ridership continues. This year also has resulted in completion of early stages of planning for more modern and faster bus service in the Cleveland Avenue corridor of northeast Columbus. Yet the Columbus area continues to lack the public transit infrastructure required for a metro area of nearly 2 million people, which continues to negatively impact a number of factors including attracting and keeping young and talented professionals.

A 2011 Columbus Chamber of Commerce survey of young professionals indicated Columbus offers many attractive assets for this population, but a lack of bicycle and public transit infrastructure were viewed as a major drawback. The chance that we will continue to lose them to places such as Charlotte, Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland, Austin and Denver among others that have and continue to expand these amenities is all too plausible.

The argument often used here is Columbus’ density in particular does not support rail and other more advanced public transit systems. Yet as shown on a recent Transit Columbus blog posting, when compared to peer cities such as Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Austin, and St. Louis—all of which operate and are expanding light rail and some combination of bus rapid transit, streetcar and commuter rail—Columbus’ metropolitan area density is greater than all but Minneapolis’ (from analysis of 2010 census figures). In other words, this argument is hereby declared dead! One study a few years ago even showed the New York City area’s density at the time the subways were constructed equated to about the same as Columbus’ is currently. That’s not to say we want to be the next New York, but the lesson is inherent in the message: density is not a barrier here in metropolitan Columbus. Thus political will may be the only remaining hurdle.

In 2013, Transit Columbus will accelerate the efforts we have begun to shift Columbus, Franklin County and the entire central Ohio region toward a more transit-oriented community—not for transit’s sake, but for the sake of making this a healthier, more vibrant place to live, work, visit and play. Such a shift will help this city, county and region compete for jobs, improve access to the jobs we have, make the region more attractive for attracting and retaining bright and young future leaders, improve mobility for older adults, increase walkability and enhance public health and the list goes on. Please join and support us in our efforts.