Columbus streetcar cost could be carried by benefit zone

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Mayor Michael Coleman wants to see "sleek, modern, electrified" streetcars running along High Street from downtown to the Ohio State University campus by 2012, the city’s bicentennial. The $103 million cost would be shared by a "benefit zone" along the line, accounting for 80 percent through parking and other fees, and 20 percent from other sources, under the mayor’s financing proposal unveiled March 27. A naming contest is also underway, but anything with "trolley" is out.

Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman is ready for the city to hop on board a proposed streetcar project by pledging $2 million for designing the line that would run along High Street from downtown to the Ohio State University campus.

Just don’t call it a trolley.

"Don’t even use the word," Coleman warned during a March 27 presentation on the proposed financing for the project. "It’s a sleek, modern, electrified, 21st century rail line," that he envisions will be the beginning of a transportation alternative that could expand through the community.

This could be the step that eventually links Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati via light rail trains, he added.

Coleman said he is so convinced that the 2.8-mile line will make the difference in spurring economic development along what he called the city’s "spine" that he is pledging the first $2 million from the city’s capital improvements budget for initial design and engineering work.

Planners estimate that the line would cost $103 million to build and $4.5 million annually to operate.

They also project that it could generate $300 million in new investment in the city in its first five years, a three-to-one return.

Streetcars were first proposed in the mayor’s state of the city speech in February, 2006. In May of that year, he convened a 42-member group to explore the feasibility and financing of the project.

The group, which studied similar projects in cities such as Portland, Ore., came to the conclusion that streetcars would stimulate economic investment in the area and that it could be accomplished without a tax increase.

Picking up the tab

So who will pick up the fare to construct and operate the line?

The group is recommending that 80 percent of the cost be generated from a "benefit zone" comprised of the approximately three-block area bordering the line, with the remaining 20 percent from other sources.

"Everybody pays a little bit," commented John Rosenberger, with the Capital South Redevelopment Corporation.

"Benefit zone" funding would come from a 4 percent surcharge on off-street parking and admissions to sporting and entertainment events, an increase in metered parking rates and earmarking existing parking meter revenue.

The rates are far less that what other cities charge, according to Rosenberger.

Fares, averaging $1 a ride, would bring in an estimated $700,000 a year. Ohio State University has agreed to contribute $500,000 a year over 25 years.

"This is a great American city," declared OSU President E. Gordon Gee, "and we have to act like one. We have to raise our expectations."

The "benefit zone" pool is projected at $10.5 million a year. Annual financing, at 4.5 percent interest, would be $6.9 million.

The remaining 20 percent, totaling $2.2 million, would be generated through a $2 million contribution from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, pledged for 10 years, and another $200,000 from advertising, naming rights and federal funding.

The plan allows for a $1.3 million contingency fund, explained Rosenberger.

MORPC officials were reported to be "ecstatic" about the rail line and the potential to reduce air pollution.

Others emphasized the need to reduce the dependence on automobiles.

"I hope I’ve bought my last car," Councilwoman Maryellen O’Shaughnessy, chair of the transportation committee, said.

The mayor wants to see City Council approve the plan by the end of the year, with construction to begin in 2010 and completion slated for 2012, in time for the city’s bicentennial.

Coleman said that the line would benefit downtown workers, who are seeing gas creep up toward $4 a gallon.

It would also be a shot in the arm for an area with 36 acres of under-developed land and 152,000 square feet of vacant retail space, he said.

Coleman pointed out that the area is home to 50,000 OSU students, 141,000 workers, 6,000 businesses and 60,000 other residents, along with the 1 million out-of-town visitors and hundreds of thousands of others who venture downtown.

The line would run between Mound Street and the Ohio Student Union, around 12th Avenue, under the preliminary drawings.

Earlier plans had connected the line to German Village and the Brewery District but, with plans for rebuilding the Interstate 70/71 split in the works, it is not practical to install tracks that will have to be torn up, Coleman explained.

He did expect that the line would be extended at a later date. And nothing is set in concrete at this time, he stressed.

William Lhota, director of the Central Ohio Transit Authority, said that the rail line would have to be integrated "seamlessly" with the city’s other public transportation.

Other cities that have launched rail lines have met with success, the group reported. Portland has built its fifth extension from the inaugural line, and has realized $3.5 billion in economic benefits.

"You will be amazed at what will happen," offered Dave Vozzolo, with HDR engineers.

The plan received a positive response at the gathering.

Kevin Wood, president of the Downtown Residents Association, said his organization had voted in support of the project and he presented a petition with 1,250 signatures backing streetcars.

Kate Christobek, president of the OSU undergraduates, said she was glad that the line would extend to campus, and that students can feel cut off from the rest of the city.

Christobek, who plans to attend law school here, said a rail line could be a selling point for convincing graduates to stay in Columbus.

Ty Marsh, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed that, for young professionals, mass transit is not a luxury "but an expectation."

Marsh added that "we may not agree with all of the details at this point, but we pledge to work with you."

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