Two things are vital to the future of the Central Ohio Transit Authority, according to Cleve Ricksecker:
"We need to grow the system. We need to capture new riders."
Ricksecker, a member of the COTA board of directors, was the guest speaker at last week's Clintonville Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Appropriately, he took the bus to the Clintonville Woman's Club from his office downtown, where he is executive director of both the Capital Crossroads and Discovery special improvement districts.
"I love riding the bus," Ricksecker told his chamber audience. "I'm a big proponent of transit."
Ricksecker, who has been on the board for about a year, offered some historical background about the Central Ohio Transit Authority and discussed why it's important for the region to have a healthy public-transit system.
COTA, which actually started as a private service operated by Columbus Southern Power, is funded by a permanent 0.25-percent sales tax and, since 2006, another 0.25-percent sales tax that's due to expire in 2016, Ricksecker said.
About 80 percent of COTA's funding comes from the half-cent sales tax, the other 20 percent from fares, he said.
In 1950, the Columbus Transit Co., which was owned by AEP's predecessor because the buses ran along the old electric trolley lines, had 80 million riders at a time when the city's population was but a shadow of what is today, he said.
"We hadn't spread out at that point," Ricksecker said.
Along came the interstate highway system, nationally and in central Ohio, and things began to spread out rapidly, he said. Owning a car became more and more important as people moved farther and farther away from the core of the city to area served by interstates 70 and 71.
By 1973, as a result of extensive loss of ridership, the Columbus Transit Co. was out of business, Ricksecker said.
Voters approved public funding for transit service the following year, and COTA came into being.
Today, COTA's service area encompasses 560 square miles, including all of Franklin County and small parts of Delaware and Licking counties. The authority operates 333 buses on 67 lines and has 28 park-and-ride locations. Additionally, COTA service includes 64 paratransit vehicles offering rides to people with disabilities who live within three-quarters of a mile of a fixed route.
"I'm very impressed with the level of sensitivity to ethical issues this company has," Ricksecker said. "Financially, it's managed extremely well."
He complimented COTA executives for seeking ways to save money by entering into partnerships with other governmental agencies, including a compressed natural gas fueling station on McKinley Avenue shared with the city of Columbus.
Having a viable, thriving transit system is important, Ricksecker said, because downtown Columbus is in "big trouble." It has lots of vacant office space, but no parking, he added.
"People haven't relearned how to take the buses to work," Ricksecker said. "We need to embrace transit as a culture again."
COTA officials are in the process of conducting a major review of entire system, one that might see the elimination of some little-used and far-flung routes in order to boost service to areas with heavier use.
"We have a system that needs to be tweaked," Ricksecker said. "COTA's taking an absolutely fresh look at the system. It's going to be really interesting to see what they come up with."
Ricksecker, who said he favors the models that emphasize ridership over extending service to a wider area, added he would be interested to observe public response as the review process moves along.
The transit system review is scheduled to be completed in September.