Transit Authority Takes Look At Buses On High Street Downtown.

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COTA buses at Midday near Broad and High.(Photo: Photo by WOSU News)
COTA buses at Midday near Broad and High.(Photo: Photo by WOSU News)

An independent transit consultant is looking at how the Central Ohio Transit Authority serves downtown Columbus. One suggestion is to re-route most COTA buses off High Street between the Franklin County courthouse and Nationwide Boulevard. It’s a controversial idea which has pitted some High Street business owners against passengers. WOSU’s Tom Borgerding reports.

High Street as been called the backbone of Columbus. It cuts through the city’s residential and commercial districts from Great Southern shopping district to Beechwold on the north side. And for 150 years, High Street has been the primary north-south street for public transit.

“Public transit first appeared on High Street during the Civil War.”

Bill Lhota is Chief Executive of COTA.

“When some entrepreneurs installed horse-drawn carriages to transport people from Union station, primarily Civil War veterans returning to Ohio, to the downtown area.”

I’m standing at Broad and High, Its just about noon hour and there are about a half-dozen buses, making stops, picking up passengers and letting them off. COTA operates a spoke and hub system. Buses from all directiions converge downtown, often at Broad and High. And that’s a problem according to Frank Kass , chairman of Continental Real Estate Companies on East Broad Street. Kass says crowded bus stops and bus congestion on High Street hurts street level retail businesses near Statehouse Square.

“The particular public transit that we presently have that puts sometimes seven, eight buses in a row in front of storefronts is clearly a deterrent.”

Kass suggests routing most of the buses off High Street to Third and Fourth streets which run parallel to High street. Passengers could then use a sheltered transit center to wait for transfers or rides in and out of downtown.

At a southbound bus stop near Broad and High, COTA passenger Brad Smith, says he’d prefer to keep the bus routes unchanged.

“Well my main reason would be asking why, what’s the point, because the bus would be running at the same time and there’s no point of moving to another street. What’s the matter with High Street?”

Jessica and James Simpkins say they depend heavily on COTA to get about town. The couple has two young children in a stroller and they disagree whether downtown buses should be re-routed off High Street.

“I think everybody would be happier as long as the big vehicles is off the main street and the little vehicles could get through it’d be less traffic and all of that. I feel that. I understand that. (Jessica Simpson) If you have more buses coming then you have more customers possibly. Really, if people don’t know their way around here it’s probably easier for them to get on the bus on High Street. q) When you come down do you get a sandwich once in awhile at a High Street merchant? A:) All the time, especially when I was pregnant.”

While Mrs. Simpkins says she sometimes stops at the coffee and sandwich shops near statehouse square, developer Kass says it’s still critical for the success of retailers to get most of the buses moved away from High.

“I think you will never develop downtown High Street, never, as long as you have that many buses of that size and that many bus stops in front of our potential retail and residential locations.”

The firm studying COTA service will weigh in on the High Street issue. And COTA chief Bill Lhota says he doesn’t want to prejudge the study. He says the authority will look at all options including re-routing busses.. But he argues public transit is not to blame for the demise of downtown retail.

“Retail has thrived, retail has declined, So I don’t buy into the theory that public transit is a deterrent to retail.

COTA expects to receive the study’s recommendations this spring. The $150,000 study is not binding, but Lhota says the transit authority will give it close consideration.

Tom Borgerding WOSU News