I was one of about 20 interested citizens at tonight’s COTA public hearing convened by Councilwoman O’Shaughnessy (Transportation Committee Chair) and Councilwoman Tavares. I’ll summarize my “minutes” of the meeting below, but the overall message I got was:
1) COTA is a “prudent, cautious, and measured” organization. Probably to a fault.
2) COTA is on sound financial footing for the first time in a decade, and is implementing it’s long range plan. This plan consists of increasing the bus hours on the streets.
3) COTA is struggling with high fuel prices, Bill Lhota believes they’ll go higher over the long term, but doesn’t have a concrete plan on how to deal with them.
4) COTA is still luke warm about the streetcar plan, so long as they have a significant seat in the design, implementation, and a good plan regarding future phases of a multi-modal system.
5) Google Transit will be up and running for Columbus on July 3rd.
If anyone else got any thoughts from the meeting, feel free to leave them in the comments below.
The notes I took, and random thoughts I had, are below the fold…
– After Councilwoman O’Shaughnessy kicked off the meeting, Bill Lhota got busy with the powerpoint slides. I grabbed a hardcopy, so I’ll post it up in the next day or so.
– Mr. Lhota kicked off the meeting by looking back at the past few years. It definitely gives me a lot of respect for the way he turned around the mess he inherited. As a sidenote: I can’t count the number of times he used the words “prudent”, “cautious”, and “measured” when referring to COTA’s organization. In my opinion, that’s part of the problem. The best transit organizations are at the tip of the spear! They have a comprehensive, progressive vision, and set the agenda for the region. COTA’s been in a “prudent, cautious, measured”, and dare I say “reactionary” position for too many years. More thoughts on this later.
– The buses are currently using 100% Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel. As was covered by the Dispatch a month ago, the soy boidiesel blends have been axed due to the high price.
– Ridership is up 7.8% in 2008. Mr. Lhota anticipates continued ridership growth into the future. He believes there is huge pent up demand for mass transit in Central Ohio based on history. Ridership peaked in Columbus in 1946 at 18 million boardings (we’re on target to approach 15,000,000 this year and our population has grown considerably since then).
– Mr. Lhota said, “I’m not sure a fixed route system on rubber tires can handle that growth”. Sidenote: it’s interesting to note that COTA’s Long Range Plan doesn’t have anything but a fixed route system on rubber tires. My head hurts.
– Mr. Lhota said that he knows that extended hours must be addressed. Existing customers complain about this all the time. This seems to be especially important to service industry workers who need to get to work early and leave work late.
– Mr. Lhota said, “We also need to go where we don’t go.” He went on to suggest that the new hospital in Dublin and Rickenbacker were two of those places.
– Mr. Lhota acknowledged that the “younger generation” expects Intelligent Transportation Systems (smart cards, real time passenger information at stops, and signal priority).
– Later in the presentation Councilwoman O’Shaughnessy pressed Doug Moore (COTA) on when some of these Intelligent Systems would be deployed. At first he said that they are “not too distant on the horizon, but nothing near term”. Later he clarified that to mean roughly 2-3 years out. Meh.
– Expect to see more buses on the freeway shoulders in the coming years. It appears that ODOT is cooperating a bit and should be converting around one freeway per year for the next few years. The barriers of deployment are: 1) a 10 ft shoulder, and 2) pavement depth of a regular freeway.
– Councilwoman O’Shaughnessy, being the savvy transportation advocate she is, cited the BRT system in Curitiba, Brazil being something of a model used by many planners. She asked Doug Moore if pre-boarding payments were an option to speed up the boarding process. Mr. Moore replied that you need space on the sidewalks, and it would be ideal if an exclusive right of way existed. He said that Bus Rapid Transit is something that might be considered in the future for areas like Cleveland Ave., Broad St., and N. High St.
– COTA planning folks are meeting with City of Columbus planing folks to look at fixed guideway right of way acquisitions, but were careful to point out that this is part of long, long range future plans. They have tabbed a certain right of way for acquisition, but it’s premature to disclose it at this point. Sounds like it could be years away at best.
– Mr. Lhota seems to be “on board” with the streetcar…so long as it is part of a broader transportation vision for Central Ohio. More on this later.
– Mr. Lhota said that COTA is “putting a lot of effort in the appearance cleanliness, and safety of busses to retain customers that are just beginning to ride”. There are obviously no more ads rusting the sides of the buses, and most buses have gotten new paint jobs.
– A big obstacle is finding additional operators, so if anyone knows people looking for a job, let them know.
– Mr. Moore of COTA said that he looks at streetcars like an upgraded bus route. My opinion: This seems like a common theme among transit engineers. They’re more interested in moving people from A -> B rather than developing dense walkable areas surrounding permanent transit lines. They often see things in completely utilitarian terms and ignore the attractiveness of streetcars to non-traditional transit riders.
– COTA is performing ridership surveys to figure out where people are going. Councilwoman Tavares asked, “are you only looking at existing riders in your survey, or are you looking at prospective riders as well?” Mr. Moore responded by stating that COTA is only looking at existing riders and the output will be fed into ridership models. Again, we aren’t seeing a ton of progressive vision here. For years, COTA has failed to market themselves to people who don’t already ride the bus. Looks like more of the same in the future.
– Mr. Lhota eluded to ODOT’s 21st Century Transportation Committee, which is in progress. He didn’t wan to prejudge the outcome, but so far, there is a huge emphasis on multi-modal transit systems.
– Tomorrow…the COTA Board will vote on a resolution to adopt Google Transit. It will be up and running on July 3rd!
– Mr. Lhota thinks COTA needs to be a big part of any fixed guideway system. Riders need to be able to seamlessly transfer from one mode to another. He thinks that the city needs to build a streetcar system to a light rail standard. Doug Moore added that you don’t want to force someone to transfer from a light rail to a streetcar for the last mile of transit. That’s the “kiss of death” for transit.
– A public/private partnership is being looked at for Rickenbacker. The system might consist of privately operated employer shuttle buses from a fixed waiting area provided by COTA. There was a meeting last Thursday between COTA and the Rickenbacker folks (over 70 people) to discuss employment issues and moving people. There is a follow up meeting tomorrow afternoon with a subcommittee to discuss solutions.
– Bill Lhota said that we desperately need a vision for the future. He then immediately followed that up by saying something to the extent of, “certainly COTA needs to be a part of that, but we’ve got our plate pretty full with rolling out the long range plan right now”. Translation: it’s important that we have a vision, but we don’t have the time or desire to take the lead on creating one. We’re doing our own thing. Call us if you’re going to make some decisions, because we’ll criticize what you’re doing. This goes back to my “tip of the spear” comment that I made above.
– Councilwoman O’Shaughnessy did a magnificent job of pressing Lhota on fuel costs. She mentioned that streetcars don’t have that issue because they run on electricity (historically more stable cost). She also pressed him about electrifying buses. It’s apparent that COTA is completely afraid of the capital costs of doing so, and that they haven’t put any thought into electrifying the system. Lhota did mention that sometime in the future they might look at hybrid buses. The finance people will look at hybrids this year. I wonder what took so long?
– Mr. Lhota seems to have a good grasp on the gasoline crisis. He mentioned that in the 1970’s it was a political problem (Arab Oil Embargo), but now it’s a production issue. He said that he expects fuel costs to keep going up in the long term, but other than having his finance people looking at hybrids later this year, he didn’t offer a plan on how to deal with the high fuel costs. Electrification isn’t part of the picture.
– Councilwoman O’Shaughnessy, who is clearly pushing a complete streets policy, really pressed Lhota on the future of COTA being a multi-modal system. Lhota hemmed and hawed a bit, and responded that COTA is currently only focused on implementing the long range plan. This was part of it’s “promise to voters” in 2006, and it would be dishonest to voters to stray off that course at all (even though he offered a quote from the worst transportation planner in history — Eisenhower — which spoke of the worthlessness of planning). To quell the Councilwoman’s desire for a multi-modal system, he offered that COTA will probably go back to the ballot box in 2014 because the current levy expires in 2016. He said, “hopefully by that time, the voters trust us enough to offer a more comprehensive multi modal transit system”.
So it looks like more of the waiting game for a comprehensive multi-modal system. I’m only 27, but it appears that I’ll be old and gray before we make some headway on this issue. Until we get a new culture installed at COTA, I think that’s the hand we’re being dealt. We should have a bus system that rivals Indianapolis’ for the next decade though. So there’s your silver lining transit fans. 😉