COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The Central Ohio Transit Authority has ended its bid Monday to place a 0.5% sales tax hike on the November ballot to help finance rapid transit lines, instead relying on other funding avenues.
COTA initially proposed the tax increase in April to make a dent in a proposed $8 billion transit plan – which includes constructing eight rapid transit corridors for busses by 2050 – but announced its decision to forego the ballot initiative Thursday, largely due to the state of Ohio’s economy.
“As we look at the economic climate and the reality of rising prices for gas, food, and more, we understand the financial strain these factors are putting on our community,” COTA spokesperson Jeff Pullin said in a statement. “Knowing this, we recognize now is not the right time to move forward with the public financing request for LinkUS.”
Officials estimated a 0.5% sales tax hike, which would raise the current tax from 0.5% to 1.0%, would tack on an extra $8.33 to central Ohio residents’ taxes every month, according to the LinkUS Community Action Plan, a transportation initiative co-sponsored by the city of Columbus, Franklin County, COTA and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.
Three of the proposed bus rapid transit corridors — East Main, West Broad and Northwest — are already being developed, with the goal of boosting the number of passengers and connecting them to hubs in the city, according to LinkUS. Leaders said the three corridors could be finished by 2030 so long as funding is available, and they will designate entire traffic lanes to buses, expand bus stops and increase the visibility of crosswalks.
“We do need to transition to what we consider more of, sort of, a world-class system,” Pinkerton said last week. “So corridors where you see major development happening allows you to put more ridership, more people through at a faster rate.”
The decision to drop the sales tax hike came just weeks after LinkUS leaders called a 0.5% sales tax increase “the most viable component” to achieve the group’s funding plan by generating an expected $210 million every year through 2050.
In its 84-page Community Action Plan released in late June, LinkUS partners estimated existing funds can only make up 17-18% of the initiative’s needs, leaving unaccounted for the $19-$22 billion necessary to accomplish their goals by 2050.
“It is the only source that is able to provide the predictable and significant level of investment that is needed to fund the scale of the investments that are part of LinkUS,” leaders wrote in the Community Action Plan.
Pullin, however, said the work on the LinkUS initiative will continue, as COTA President Joanne Pinkerton said the agency is applying for $300 million in federal grants and relying on other federal dollars from the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“Our LinkUS partners and Steering and Executive committee members remain steadfast in seeing the work continue, with these critical mobility elements at the forefront,” Pullin said.
The absence of a LinkUS ballot initiative came as a disappointment for central Ohio residents eager to reform the region’s transit options, including Harvey Miller, director of Ohio State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis.
While Miller said COTA probably did not take the decision lightly, the geography professor said “we cannot continue to kick the can down the road” when it comes to shifting our transit priorities in Columbus.
“City leadership must tell us what they are willing to do – not later, but right now,” Miller said in an email. “We have been stalled for years on making progress in our transportation systems; meanwhile, people are dying on our streets, our roads are getting more congested and the planet is heating rapidly.”
“We are out of time,” he said.
LinkUS leaders are poised to find another time, Pullin said, to present a sales tax increase to voters.