Planning For Success: A new vision for Columbus rail

By Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications

The 11 undergraduates in Chad Gibson’s city and regional planning studio course were assigned a daunting task—assessing the feasibility of light rail transit for Ohio’s capital city. As the largest metropolitan area in the United States without passenger rail service, proponents argue that a world-class transportation system is critical to Columbus becoming a world-class city. But previous attempts to bring light rail to the city in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s were unsuccessful.

Local advocacy group Transit Columbus approached Ohio State’s city and regional planning department with the idea for the studio following Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman’s State of the City address in February 2014. The mayor’s challenge to connect the city’s central business district to Port Columbus International Airport by passenger rail reignited the possibility of realizing such a system.

The department readily accepted the challenge. Ranging from downtown planning for central Ohio cities to transit-based projects to planning the university’s West Campus science corridor, the goal of studio courses is to provide students with a real-world consulting assignment. “Ohio State’s studio courses are so wonderful because they bridge the gap between the academic realm and the professional realm,” Gibson, a lecturer in the Knowlton School of Architecture and senior planning officer for the City of Upper Arlington, explained. “They allow the students to not only use their creativity, but also to apply everything they’ve learned in their college career up to that point.”

With just 15 weeks to analyze the issue and present their findings to the mayor’s Jobs, Expansion and Transportation (JET) Task Force Transportation Working Group, the class spent the first several weeks researching all things transit. Each student was assigned a transit system in a comparable U.S. city to analyze, focusing on its costs and funding model.

Next, the students formed small groups to further study issues such as public interest surveys and specific route ideas. They performed site visits to explore possible light rail maintenance yards and measure city streets.

The students ultimately recommended building two light-rail lines in Columbus—at a cost of $741 million. They suggested completing the project in phases, with the first $335 million line running along High Street from The Ohio State University campus to downtown Columbus. The second line would connect downtown with Port Columbus at a cost of $406 million.

Pointing to some of the benefits achieved by passenger rail in other cities, the class reported that the addition of light rail should increase redevelopment around transit stations, reduce CO2 emissions and save commuters money and time. Plus, with Columbus’ population projected to increase by 500,000 by 2050, mass transit could accommodate additional commuters more economically than with highway expansion.

Public outreach was a major component of the project. The students designed a website, columbusrail.today, to find out if Columbus residents actually wanted a light rail system and publicized their work via Twitter (@ColumbusRail). In addition to collecting 2,000 surveys about visitors’ transportation needs and preferences, the website enabled participants to design their own transit system and learn more about light rail. “It was important to us to explain some of the things we were researching,” said Jevonna Morris, a senior city and regional planning major and the project’s outreach coordinator. “The site allowed people to get a flavor of the different things we were grappling with, in terms of our decision making.”

At the end of autumn semester, the students presented their findings to an audience of 50 at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and via a 119-page final report. Their efforts also generated media attention from local TV, radio, newspapers and online outlets. “Most classes don’t generate that kind of attention,” said Gibson. “The students did an outstanding job and the feedback from our clients was overwhelmingly positive. What they produced in just a few months was pretty wonderful.”

While working on such a high-profile project can add to the challenge, the students said they know it will benefit them in the future. “I started the studio last semester wanting to be in transit planning and transit planning only. One of the cool things about taking a studio about transit is that it actually opened up my world to a lot more career options,” said Morris. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

Students also appreciated the resume building aspect of presenting a project to the public and having it critiqued, and the ability to meet planning professionals. “What I got out of it the most was the networking aspect,” said Ryan Dittoe, a senior city and regional planning major. “With an interest in airport planning, it was interesting to talk to people at Port Columbus who do the job that I would like to have one day and get their opinion on a project that actually matters.”

Gibson and his students hope their work continues to be a useful tool for future planning decisions. “The ultimate dream with any of these studio projects is definitely that it lives on beyond the academic realm and that people are actually going to look at it and use it,” he explained. “So far it still has legs and that’s been kind of neat to see.”

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