Streetcars derailed

In the face of public opposition, and at the request of Mayor Michael Coleman, Columbus City Council has put the brakes on spending $2 million for designing a High Street streetcar line.

On May 5, council voted on a $1.1 billion capital improvements budget with the line item for the streetcar design removed.

"A vote on this ordinance is not an endorsement, nor is it a non-endorsement, of the streetcar proposal," Councilman Kevin Boyce explained.

The $2 million remains in the budget to allow council to consider the issue later in the year, Boyce added.

The budget alteration was made after many residents expressed their doubts about the need for the transportation line running from downtown to the Ohio State University campus.

"Frankly, we are not ready to spend these resources," Coleman wrote in a memo to council members. "While these issues are clear to me, our public needs more information."

Coleman and his streetcar study group have touted the 2.8-mile line as the beginning of a "transportation revolution" that would spur economic development in Columbus.

Total cost for the line is estimated at $103 million, with 80 percent to be covered by parking fees and other surcharges within a three-block "benefit zone" along the route.

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and OSU have pledged support for the project.

Coleman wants to launch the line by the city’s bicentennial in 2012.

Some council members had complained that they were being left out of the loop as far as the planning was concerned.

Councilwoman Maryellen O’Shaughnessy, chairwoman of the transportation committee, has been a vocal proponent of the proposal.

"We can no longer plan for the future without planning a transportation system that includes more than the car," O’Shaughnessy said.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority is also involved in the planning, she noted, and its services would be integrated into the streetcar line.

"There are always going to be buses. We’re not saying buses are going away," O’Shaughnessy said.

A meeting on COTA’s long-range plans is set for June 24, the councilwoman noted.

The mayor has also recommended that council form a rail transit development committee, in partnership with MORPC, OSU and other groups, to study transportation alternatives.

Coleman would also like the representatives to take a trip to Portland, Ore., where streetcars have reportedly been a big success.

The plan continued to draw supporters and detractors at the council meeting.

Marilyn Baker, representing 1,000 Friends of Central Ohio, presented a petition with 300 signatures gathered at the recent Short North Gallery Hop in support of streetcars as "an engine for economic development."

Mary Waller, a North High Street resident, said the city needs to spend the money for police protection and street repairs rather than streetcars.

"We can have streetcars, but just not right now," Waller said. "I know you have a lot of money to spend. Please don’t spend it on streetcars."

Almost lost in the debate was the rest of the capital budget, earmarked for equipment purchases, street and utility work, vehicles and building renovations.

"This is a budget that improves our home we call Columbus," explained Council President Michael Mentel.

About $780 million of that amount will go toward water treatment improvements ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency, Boyce said.

The spending also includes $3.1 million for fire-fighting apparatus, including a new platform ladder.

It also earmarks $1.4 million for security cameras to be placed at locations throughout the city and at large events.

Council members have expressed concern that a policy is not in place for the use of the cameras.

Another big task looms before council. Boyce reported that meetings on the five-year capital improvements plan will be held in May and June.

This will precede placing the bicentennial bond package on the November ballot.

With a mid-August deadline to file with the board of elections, council will be operating on a "tight time-line," Boyce said.

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