MORPC keen on streetcars
City project trumps I-71/70 caps, cargo hub
Thursday, November 30, 2006
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
 

Regional planners say a proposed Downtown streetcar line is a higher priority than caps over the I-70/71 split and a Rickenbacker Airport cargo hub.

Mayor Michael B. Coleman has proposed bringing streetcars to High Street. A Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission committee recommended yesterday that the streetcar project get $20 million in federal funds, more than any other project on its list.

The MORPC group recommended against a $25 million request to build caps over the highway and $11.6 million for Rickenbacker.

"Well, that’s not great," said Columbus Councilwoman Maryellen O’Shaughnessy, a champion of the highway caps, which would reconnect Downtown and German Village after four decades.

State and city officials have suggested the caps be part of rebuilding the highway, scheduled for construction in 2010.

"Certainly, we’re disappointed," said Michelle May, project manager for the Ohio Department of Transportation. "But we do have other options, and we’re exploring every other avenue."

May said city, county and state officials have agreed on a budget of $70 million to $100 million to reunite the urban neighborhoods. Although officials don’t have to produce the money until 2010 to 2015, they need commitments for it "over the next year," she said.

Thus far, the only committed cap money is $10 million from ODOT.

O’Shaughnessy reiterated her preference yesterday.

"I would say it goes toward the cap," she said. "We can’t go back and do it in a couple years. We can with streetcars."

MORPC interim Executive Director Bob Lawler said the committee recommended funding streetcars to recognize the city’s interest in pursuing it.

"Streetcars are a potentially valuable addition to the transportation system in central Ohio," he said.

Earmarking money for the streetcar line means MORPC won’t have money to help pay for the caps or Rickenbacker.

The MORPC committee made recommendations on how to spend federal dollars from 2008 through 2015. The proposals, at http://tip.morpc.org, are open to public comment through Jan. 12.

Lawler said the public comments could change priorities. "I know that there is a lot of support for the caps. Part of what we’re looking at is what kind of support they receive from the public and officials."

Mike Reese, Coleman’s deputy chief of staff, prepared the streetcar application, which scored the most points of the three with the committee and more than three times higher than the Rickenbacker application. The cap application, prepared by unidentified city staff members, was submitted late and not scored, Lawler said.

Rickenbacker’s application was filed by the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, to expand a freight hub now under construction. The hub is expected to create 69,000 jobs during the next 30 years.

"There’s only a certain amount of money that’s available," Lawler said. "Given the fact that the yard is moving forward and will open … adding additional funding is something that could wait."

Asked whether jobs at Rickenbacker were considered, Lawler said, "Our evaluation process doesn’t really have a way to weigh that."

Airport authority President Elaine Roberts was unavailable for comment yesterday.

A High Street streetcar line between Buttles Avenue in the Short North and Frankfort Street in German Village would cost between $64 million and $80 million to build and about $4.5 million annually to operate, a task force said this month.

MORPC proposes that local funds contribute $55 million to build the line in 2009, while $2 million more a year in federal funds would go to operating costs between 2011 and 2020.

dgebolys@dispatch.com