On Development: We’ve railroaded our hopes for rail transit

Our columnist revisits a 1999 interview with former Columbus mayor Michael B. Coleman and bemoans the city's lack of action on developing any real alternative to car culture.
Light trails from highway traffic viewed from the Front Street bridge in downtown Columbus.
Light trails from highway traffic viewed from the Front Street bridge in downtown Columbus.By R.D. Smith for Unsplash

I was in transition from the agriculture beat to the transportation beat at The Columbus Dispatch. At the same time, Michael B. Coleman was in transition from City Council president to mayor of Columbus. So, in late December 1999, the uninaugurated mayor sat down to discuss goals with the uninitiated transportation reporter.

“I want to take a comprehensive approach,” Coleman said. “Transportation policy means looking at it holistically. In order for [Columbus] to be the 21st-century city I want it to be, transportation must take priority. … We can’t build ourselves out of traffic congestion. We can’t pave and blacktop the city. We have to do some road building, but we must build alternative forms of transportation if we’re going to be a 21st-century city.”

“Transportation is much more than getting one car from here to there,” he continued. “I’ve been watching Atlanta from afar. It’s choking from traffic right now. Its neighborhood quality of life is choking. Its economic development is choking. … [In Toronto] they’ve taken transportation planning to an overall planning level. There’s multiple forms of ways to get around. There’s a vibrancy in the economic development, a vibrancy in the neighborhoods.”

In that long-ago conversation, an animated Coleman envisioned a transportation network that embraced buses, bicycles, pedestrian paths and taxis. And economic development. And land-use policy. And neighborhood quality of life. And any alternatives to “car culture.”

“I’m a policy guy at heart. Politics is getting people to buy into policy,” he said. He outlined plans to create a “policy office” so “researchers, planners, and implementers” could shape those ideas into workable policies. Coleman said he wanted to use his office as a bully pulpit to raise ideas and try to change attitudes.

What attitudes changed in Coleman’s 16 years as mayor and in his hand-picked successor’s nearly eight-year run in power?

Rail transit is a greater need, yet even further from reach today than it was a quarter century ago. COTA’s bus lines are a trainwreck after colliding with COVID, and then reducing service due to a driver shortage. Bicycle trails and lanes have increased significantly yet insufficiently. People walking and pedaling remain frighteningly vulnerable.

The same 1999 voters who put Coleman in the mayor’s office also rejected a long-range vision for eight commuter rail lines – though specific routes had not yet been designated. But voters finally made COTA’s 0.25 percent sales tax permanent. Coleman was bullish on transit early in his tenure.

By 2003, COTA had a serious light rail plan from Polaris to downtown – a hybrid operating as suburban commuter rail further north, and then as a streetcar from Hudson Street to Capitol Square. But declining sales-tax revenue and other problems forced COTA to cut service, further weakening rail support. My memory, backed by newspaper archives, does not reveal much “bully pulpit” action from the city to support the COTA plan – which soon faded.

Then in 2006, plans for a streetcar connector from the Franklin County Courthouse to OSU popped into the headlines. This was more of a city plan than a COTA plan, and a 2008 Dispatch article noted that COTA was “willing” to operate the streetcars if the city could build the line. Again, the city and the transit agency seemed to be only passing in the night.

By 2011, a City Hall spokesman said, "The streetcar plan is not something the mayor is pursuing in any way."

In December 2012, when Paul Astleford retired from a dozen years heading Experience Columbus (after being lured here from a similar job in Chicago) he was reflective in a Dispatch interview: “In Chicago, all the power was in the office of the mayor, all the power. ... I came here and found just the opposite: All the power was in the private sector, and the private sector ran the community like a corporation, and what they did was for their own profit and legacy. There was a lack of collaboration on a strategic approach for the city. There was no shared vision.”

Astleford started that job about the same time Coleman became mayor, and he noted that elected officials and civic leaders became more cohesive during his time at Experience Columbus.

He also said transit plans were important, and that they had to be “visionary.”

“If you talk about just a Downtown streetcar, it won't resonate from an aspirational aspect,” he said in 2012. “It needs to marry into regional transportation and have that marry into the state and have that marry into national transportation.”

And here we are – another decade later, with Columbus and the region growing fast, and with Intel reshaping the northeast quadrant of the metro area. Still no real rail plan. Still no cohesive vision from the city or state or corporate leaders. Still no voices from the bully pulpit. Still no hope. 

Brian Williams is a consultant and freelance writer. A former Columbus Dispatch reporter, he is retired from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Matter News