And now Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman has raised the critical issue of the need to treat Port Columbus as a center for ground as well as air transportation, potentially even serviced via passenger rail.
In part, these shifts respond to an obvious deficiency of public transit and mobility options for this metropolitan area of nearly 2 million people, an area that continues to lag the rest of the nation in terms of options.
A report and map of all of the new major transit projects starting in the U.S., reported by the online publication the Transport Politic, showed nearly every major metropolitan area in the nation has a major public-transit project in progress, but Columbus, the 15th largest city and 31st largest metropolitan region, remains off the map.
Even auto-oriented cities such as Detroit and Cincinnati are moving forward with the construction of streetcars, and the completion of an upgrade of existing passenger rail service between Detroit and Chicago to a speed of 110 mph for most of the route is about two years out.
Granted, the Central Ohio Transit Authority is growing, and the level of service and ridership both are steadily increasing and have been for nearly eight years. In addition to the new car- and bike-sharing options that have sprung up, the local organization Transit Columbus gained more than 5,400 signatures on a Change.org petition that inquired about interest in a passenger rail line from Columbus to Chicago.
Yet we have a long way to go, and the stakes are high. For a metropolitan region of this size, the public-transit and other mobility options remain significantly deficient compared to Columbus’ peer cities. Central Ohio also remains the largest metropolitan region on the U.S. map that lacks any type of transportation by passenger rail.
Nearly all metropolitan regions of our size, and even smaller, offer multiple modes including light rail, streetcars, intercity passenger trains and/or commuter trains that connect suburban communities to the central cities and major employment centers. A number of cities also have developed higher-volume and more-efficient bus rapid-transit systems. The Columbus area has none of these options, although COTA is working on a bus rapid-transit plan for Columbus’ Cleveland Avenue corridor that could be operable within a few years.
Also at stake are our region’s millennials: the population now in their late teens through mid-30s who are delaying or skipping the option of getting drivers licenses and buying cars and instead are demanding other alternatives, such as world-class public transit, walkable communities and infrastructure that accommodates bicycling for transportation as well as recreation.
Three years ago, local young professionals responded in a survey that Columbus is a great place to live for their age group, but that the lack of transportation options is the largest deficiency among those attributes and one of the most important to these future leaders of our community. Unfortunately, many already have departed or may yet leave to become leaders and contributors to other places such Portland, Denver, Chicago and Charlotte because these cities offer these amenities not found in Columbus.
Locally and statewide, a growing older-adult population will face mobility issues as driving becomes increasingly challenging and perhaps less desirable. Columbus also bid for a major national political-party convention in 2016, and yet Experience Columbus and other organizations have indicated that convention visitors here have said that Columbus does not have the multi-modal, interconnected transportation options they would expect or are accustomed to in a city this large.
Thus for these and so many other reasons, the time has come —– and in fact is long overdue — for political, corporate and civic leaders to come to terms with the value and importance of better public transportation to central Ohio’s future. Our leaders need to support the advancement of the transportation system we need now, and for the future, if our community is to remain a vibrant and relevant urban region of the future.
Eric Davies is the board chairman of Transit Columbus.