Columbus residents rail against mayors streetcar plan

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With so many other things that need funding, Columbus is on the wrong track in considering a $103 million streetcar line, numerous residents told City Council April 28.

"It’s a question of misplaced priorities," resident Paul Harris stated of the plan that he worries would divert funds needed for streets, sidewalks and police protection. "We need to take care of the fundamentals first. When the fundamentals are taken care of, then we can dream."

While outnumbered, others expressed support for Mayor Michael Coleman’s proposal for the 2.8-mile line running along High Street from downtown to the Ohio State University campus.

"If not now, when?" questioned westside resident Lisa Boggs, who welcomes the introduction of streetcars and suggested that the cars could be manufactured for Columbus and other cities at the General Motors plant on West Broad Street.

Columbus is last among large cities in providing public transportation, Coleman said. "That’s not an area I want to be last in."

Coleman has included $2 million for design and engineering of the line in the capital improvements budget being considered by council. That budget will be on the agenda for their May 5 meeting.

Councilwoman Maryellen O’Shaughnessy noted that approving the budget item doesn’t mean the money would be automatically spent, and that the appropriation would have to come back to council.

But Councilwoman Charleta Tavares added that giving the green light signals the city’s priorities. "The budget says how you plan to spend that money."

Coleman argued that the line would be the start of a "transportation revolution" that could lead to extending light rail throughout the city and the state.

The commission appointed by Coleman to study the streetcar proposal estimates that the investment would result in an economic return of $300 million over the first five years for area businesses and attractions.

That would mean more jobs and tax revenue, Coleman maintains.

The commission has recommended that 80 percent of the construction and operating costs be generated within a three-block "benefit zone" bordering the route.

That would include a 4 percent surcharge on off-street parking and paid admissions to attractions along the line, and an increase in fees for parking meters, with the $3.6 million in meter revenue within the zone earmarked for the streetcars.

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission has pledged $2 million a year over 10 years, and Ohio State University would ante up $500,000 a year.

Nothing is set in concrete, Coleman insisted. "This is a financial scenario, not the financial scenario."

But with so many competing needs, many who spoke would prefer to see the plan derailed.

"I don’t want to see you make the biggest mistake of your lives," Harrison Smith, a retired lawyer who worked on development issues for the city, told council members.

Smith charged that the mayor’s plan lacks the larger vision that went into the planning for such projects as New Albany. "The cart and the horse are all mixed up."

Willis Brown, president of the King-Lincoln-Bronzeville Neighborhood Association, said that more cross-town bus routes are needed, instead of a north-south line.

Brown also chided the mayor for leaving the meeting as public comments started, calling it "disrespectful."

Michael Barr, owner of Crater’s restaurant on South High Street for 23 years, called the streetcars "an old idea, not a new idea" and commented that the city needs to connect people to the Brewery District, COSI and other attractions not on the line.

The initial plans for the streetcar called for a line that extended to the Brewery District, but the pending reconstruction of the I-70/71 split put that on hold.

Other perceive the potential benefits of a transportation alternative.

Andrew Hill, who manages a medical practice on High Street with his physician wife, thinks that his patients would like to park in one place and have a way to travel to other appointments.

Peter Koltak, incoming president of Ohio State’s undergraduates, thinks the streetcars would give students a way to explore Columbus.

Kate Christobek, who will be attending law school at OSU after completing her undergraduate degree, also sees it as a way to keep graduates in the city and to attract young professionals. "They want a vibrant, young city."

Coleman is aiming to have construction begin in 2010, with the streetcar line ready by the city’s bicentennial in 2012.

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