Sales tax hike needed for Columbus bus rapid transit

The Central Ohio Transit Authority plans to impose a sales tax increase in an upcoming ballot, possibly as early as November, to raise $6 billion for a bus rapid transit system.

This would increase the system sales tax from 0.5% to 1%. Voters in areas served by COTA — Franklin and parts of Delaware, Fairfield, Licking and Union counties — would decide.

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Officials say a permanent tax would also help their efforts to raise matching federal funds and bond financing to pay for the system, which would cost a total of $8 billion by 2050.

“It will build at least five high-capacity corridors,” COTA president and CEO Joanna Pinkerton said in an interview Wednesday with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

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The first corridors are being planned along West Broad Street through the city center to East Main Street – the east-west corridor; and the Northwest Corridor from Downtown to Olentangy River Road and eventually to the Dublin area that would connect runners to Ohio State University and OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital, among other major employers.

Other lanes have yet to be determined, Pinkerton said. “It’s a community process,” she said.

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The plan is part of the LinkUS strategy that COTA, the City of Columbus, and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission launched in 2020.

The sales tax hike would be spent on building these bus rapid transit lines, where big buses would have dedicated right-of-way and passengers boarding at stations, a costly but cheaper alternative to rail.

If voters approve the tax, the plan is to spend $1.4 billion by 2030, with construction to begin on the East-West Corridor road in 2024 or 2025, and on the Northwest Corridor a year later. late.

Each would take two years to build, Pinkerton said.

Proponents say the new system would also stimulate development near stations along the corridor. A recent Ohio State study showed that multifamily property values ​​increased along bus rapid transit lines in cities such as Cleveland, where the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority has the HealthLine of seven miles along Euclid Avenue from downtown Cleveland at University Circle to East Cleveland.

“Because we’re talking about loopholes in the system, it’s a big deal,” said William Murdock, executive director of the regional planning commission.

Tax money would also be used to build infrastructure to support the system, such as sidewalks, bike lanes and greenways. Pinkerton said $61 million per year would be spent on this, or $1.6 billion through 2050.

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The push comes at a time when central Ohio’s population is expected to reach 3 million by 2050 and Intel is moving forward with plans for two computer chip factories in Licking County, a $20 billion project. of dollars that 7,000 construction workers will build and where 3,000 Intel employees will walk.

Pinkerton said there have been discussions with Licking County officials about regional transit.

Said Murdock: “The region will be noticeably different by the end of the decade.”

“There is room to strengthen the quality of life,” he said.

When would voters see the tax question on the ballot?

Pinkerton said the COTA board will decide when to put the tax issue on the ballot, but that could be as early as November.

Columbus City Council Speaker Shannon Hardin said the Greater Cleveland RTA has a 1% sales tax in Cuyahoga County that funds it. He also said other cities, including Indianapolis and Austin, are ahead of Columbus in getting federal funds for similar projects.

“We have a unique opportunity with the bipartisan infrastructure plan,” he said.

Josh Lapp, who chairs Transit Columbus, an advocacy group, said his organization supports the tax hike. Lapp is also a steering committee member of the LinkUS leadership coalition.

“LinkUS is a holistic approach,” he said, with bus rapid transit and protected bike lanes and sidewalks that connect to other initiatives such as the city’s goal to build more affordable housing.

“Any kind of additional taxation is always something that needs to be explained to voters in order to get them to buy into it,” Lapp said. This includes environmental benefits and reduced traffic congestion.

“We really can’t be a world-class city without world-class public transit,” he said.


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