The Central Ohio Transit Authority's 2020 budget includes money to expand its microtransit service for job hubs in three more areas and to increase the frequency of service on its popular CMAX line on Cleveland Avenue and the No. 2 line on southbound North High Street during the morning commute.

COTA's board of trustees on Dec. 18 approved a $170 million operating budget for the new year -- an 8.9% increase over the adjusted 2019 budget.

"It's a forward-thinking budget," said Joanna Pinkerton, COTA's president and CEO. "We're banking on expanding services to the community."

The budget includes money for COTA to expand its on-demand microtransit service in Grove City. There, COTA provides small buses for first-mile/last-mile connections that provide service between fixed-route stops and workplaces.

The microtransit COTA Plus pilot serves the Mount Carmel Grove City hospital, the Southpark Industrial Park and businesses along state Route 665.

The second pilot will serve downtown Grove City, the Walmart distribution center and other locations.

COTA Plus also will be expanded to serve three other areas, though COTA spokesman Jeff Pullin said the system won't announce which areas until early next year. He said 14 areas have asked for the service.

COTA also plans to increase the frequency of service on several lines, beginning either in May or September, Pullin said.

Northbound CMAX service up Cleveland Avenue from downtown Columbus will start running every 10 minutes beginning at 2 p.m. rather than 3 p.m., said Angel Mumma, COTA's chief financial officer. Since January 2018, CMAX ridership has increased 26% in both directions, Mumma said.

Frequency on the southbound No. 2 bus down North High Street will increase between 8 and 10 a.m. weekdays.

Frequency will increase on the No. 9 line between West Mound Street and Brentnell Avenue to relieve weekday and weekend crowding.

COTA also is boosting its minimum wage to $15 an hour, affecting about 65 employees and costing COTA another $160,000 annually.

That affects such workers as COTA Plus operators, customer-service representatives and interns, Mumma said.

Pullin said the wage increase is expected to help COTA recruit and retain workers.

Mumma said it also follows the lead of other local governments and companies that increased their employees' minimum wage to $15 an hour. That includes Mount Carmel, which boosted its minimum wage to $15 an hour for 1,000 workers in November. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. made a similar move in 2015.

Pinkerton said it is COTA's responsibility to act more like a business.

"It's the right thing to do," she said.

Workers belonging to Transport Workers Union of America Local 208, which represents drivers and others, are due 3% raises in 2020.

About 63% of COTA's budget is for wages and benefits. COTA employs about 1,100.

The budget authorizes COTA to dip into its reserve fund by $6.9 million to make up the difference between projected revenues of $163.1 million and the $170 million in projected expenses.

mferench@dispatch.com

@MarkFerenchik