For the last few days, I’ve been reading the COTA Downtown Operations Analysis on my 20-minute train ride. The report was prepared for COTA by Transytems to evaluate options for removing buses and waiting passengers from High Street.
Why do we want to remove buses and passengers from High Street? The Downtown Columbus 2010 Strategic Plan wants to “restore High Street,” and the bus congestion and lack of on-street parking are given as two reasons why there are tens of thousands of square feet of vacant storefronts.
High Street has always been a primary commercial corridor of Downtown Columbus, and the City as a whole. High Street is the hub of government, commercial and entertainment activity, however it faces numerous challenges. Despite recent reinvestment and redevelopment, High Street has tens of thousands of square feet of vacant storefronts and is pock-marked with surface parking lots. The bus transit mall that occupies High Street increases bus congestion, blocks storefronts and prevents on-street parking. The streetscape is aging and new street trees and street furnishings are badly needed.
One solution pitched by the plan is to build a transit center to replace the transit mall.
This new downtown transit center could have numerous positive spin-off effects. Reducing the bus congestion on High Street will allow for the proposed streetscape improvements and the return of on-street parking. To more efficiently serve the downtown area, cities such as Nashville have also instituted free, aggressively marketed and branded downtown circulator buses. With the advent of a transit center, there is an opportunity to revive COTA’s “Link” service within Downtown Columbus.
I have mentioned before that I don’t really agree with the concept that buses are the problem or that on-street parking would solve the retail vacancy problems on High Street, but COTA is playing nicely and evaluating the impacts it would have to their operations and their passengers. They also evaluated several other concepts:
Bus stop consolidation
Diversion of some local routes to 3rd Street and 4th Street
Diversion of some local routes to a two-way 3rd Street
Diversion of some local routes to a two-way Front Street
Diversion of some local routes to Front Street and 3rd Street.
Build a transit center at High Street and Gay Street
Build a transit center at Long Street & 3rd Street
Terminate routes at the existing north and south terminals and use a free shuttle service on High Street to connect the two.
I’m not going to try to outline the details of all of these, but I’ll cut and paste the evaluation matrix here. If you want more details, I would encoruage you to look at the report. It’s 49 pages long, but the text is actually quite concise, written in a reader-friendly way, and supplemented with lots of nice graphics.
Other than perhaps a comfort factor of waiting at a transit center, virtually all of these are bad for transit riders because they increase delays, transfers, or walking distances. Financially, the transit center is obviously going to be expensive to construct and maintain. The diversion options, including the transit center, also represent out-of-the-way travel for COTA, so they cost more operationally too. The “impact on the pedestrian environment” category assumes that fewer people on High Street would be good. I think that’s debatable, but it’s what the steering committee for the study wanted. The only alternatives to advance beyond the preliminary evaluation stage were diverting buses to Front Street and building a transit center at High & Gay.
The Front Street diversion would move six local routes to a two-way Front Street, leaving six on High Street. There would still be up to 57 buses on portions of High Street during the peak hour compared to 34 on Front Street. The lines were chosen based on the ability to provide a transfer as the route crosses High Street. They mostly come from the east or down High Street itself. The cost would be $1.2 million annually for extra buses on the #1, 11, and 16 routes to maintain reliable service due to the extra travel time, as well as another $2.0 million in capital costs (new buses and shelters). This could potentially allow on-street parking on High Street during off-peak hours.
The report says the site for the Gay Street transit center would only be big enough to provide 14 bus bays, but 24 would be needed to serve all local buses on High Street. So they allowed southbound buses to stay on High Street and stop adjacent to the transit center on the west side of the street while northbound buses and the #10 would divert to enter the transit center from Front Street and exit onto Long. This would allow the removal of three northbound bus stops between State and Long for local routes, but express routes would still use those stops. This could allow on-street parking on the east side of High Street during off-peak hours. Several lines would require additional buses due to the lost time from the transit center diversion, costing $4.1 million extra in annual operating costs. This is in addition to the $20 to $40 million cost of the transit center and $6 million for new buses.
The report doesn’t really make a recommendation. It is just meant to provide information for the decision makers. The Steering Committee apparently isn’t in favor of the transit center idea due to the cost and limited movement of buses and people off of High Street. The next steps will be to gather public input on both of the final alternatives. There were meetings Tuesday, July 19 and Wednesday, July 20. There will be two additional meetings next week on Tuesday, July 26.
My opinion is that given the costs and questionable benefits, I don’t like either of these options much. Ignoring the capital cost of the Front Street two-way conversion, which should be done anyway, even $1.2 million in annual operating costs is a blow to COTA service. At an operating cost of $106.93 per vehicle revenue hour, $1.2 million could be used to provide 11,222 new service hours, or a 1.6% service increase. That’s not huge, but I’d rather have that than a less congested High Street or a transit center that increases travel times for riders so we can add three blocks of on-street parking (about 51 parking spaces by my estimate).
If the goal is to improve retail, and we had $1.2 million or more to burn, we could just spend that money on grants for businesses like the Mile on High Incentive District is doing. Hell, at a rent of $17.84 per square foot per year, we could just pay the rent for over 67,000 square feet of retail space with $1.2 million. Think any businesses would move into High Street for free rent? Yes, please. Think they could make a profit if they didn’t have to pay rent? How could they not? The city could even choose exactly which businesses they want on High Street. That would take care of the problem of “tens of thousands of square feet of vacant storefronts.” I don’t see why pay more for worse transit service in the hopes that 51 on-street parking spaces will revitalize High Street. If you want retail on High Street, give the $1.2 million directly to businesses. Have a business plan competition to see who gets the money. Make it good for only a year or two. After that, the businesses have to stand on their own. The possibilities are endless really, but it seems like more of a sure thing than diverting buses to Front Street or building a transit center.