Transit in Ohio: A Missed Opportunity

In a recent post, we praised the national attention that cities are getting for the disproportionate role they play in spurring innovation, generating GDP, and several other factors.  In Ohio, we should be paying close attention to this discussion because Ohio is rich in cities and metro areas (broad regions that encompass what we traditionally think of as “cities” but also include economically interconnected suburbs and rural areas).  While this national conversation is heartening, on the local front, we have been disappointed to read several articles chronicling the minimization of public transportation as a priority in Ohio.  Transit, and its ability to support the development of walkable places, is an important element in fostering dynamic, sustainable cities capable of generating outsized returns.

  • The Ohio Department of Transportation recently announced that the state will cut $70 million from the $150 million pledged to state transit agencies under the former Governor.
  • A recent Columbus Dispatch article has an exaggerated title, but nevertheless chronicles the de-emphasis of Columbus’ long-studied plans for a streetcar and light rail.   This follows the news that Columbus’ proposed “Health-Education” line will not proceed due to the state’s reallocation of funds, mentioned above.  Although Columbus is economically prosperous compared with other Ohio cities, it cannot afford to be complacent and fail to provide the amenities that the talented, un-tethered workforce and empty-nesters are calling for: namely, high-quality transit and the vibrant, walkable neighborhoods it helps foster.  If this sounds quixotic, these actually are the findings of a Columbus Chamber of Commerce study on attracting and retaining talent in Columbus.  The report specifically called out the need for Columbus to improve pedestrian areas, public transit and revitalize downtown, proving that there is widespread support for transit in Ohio.

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  • The Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce has also put their weight behind the Cincinnati streetcar (and future transit projects) by coming out against a burgeoning effort to oppose the streetcar, and saying the movement would “significantly hamper positive growth in Cincinnati.”  We are cheered by the support of the Cincinnati Chamber and the community for the streetcar, which has the potential to be the first of its kind in Ohio and has already demonstrated its merit by winning federal funding and defeating a similar initiative in 2009 (Issue 9) aimed at thwarting it.
  • While Cincinnati fights for their streetcar plan, they will not escape the previously mentioned state cuts to transit funding.  Urban Cincy reports that the funding was slated to be used for express bus service connecting the University of Cincinnati to Glenway Crossing, Butler County, and Uptown.

Nationally there is growing recognition that strong cities and their regions support lots of good things, like idea transfer, economic development, good health, and more.  If a city means opportunity, then in Ohio we’ve got opportunity in spades.  But we need to make strategic investments in our cities and metro regions to make them the kinds of places that people want to live and work.  Public transit is a key lever in this change because while it’s good for moving people around, it’s also good at coalescing quality places.  In Ohio, we must make an intentional effort to leverage our existing resources to their fullest potential and developing robust transit is one important way to do that.  If we do this right, the return on our investment will be significant.