By Rick Rouan
Downtown workers at 5 companies may get free rides on COTA.
Downtown workers might receive unlimited free access to city buses if a test program takes off this year.
A group of 1,050 Downtown employees at five companies will receive a special credential to ride Central Ohio Transit Authority buses free through the end of 2016 as local organizations test ways to open up parking spaces for new companies that want to move to the city center.
If enough of those who are eligible shift from driving to taking the bus, the program could be extended to all 40,000 Downtown workers, said Cleve Ricksecker, executive director of the Capital Crossroads special improvement district.
“The challenge we face right now is, how do we accommodate more people?” he said. “As parking facilities fill up, we need to look at alternatives and more parking.”
Initially, select workers at Nationwide Insurance; Bricker & Eckler LLP; Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur LLP; Huntington Bank’s 37 W. Broad St. office; and State Auto Financial’s 175 S. 3rd St. office will be eligible for the passes.
A 5 percent shift among those workers from driving to transit could free up enough parking spaces to help attract more companies and reduce the number of vacant offices Downtown, Ricksecker said.
COTA’s board of trustees approved its end of the program yesterday. It will print the credentials and charge flat fares for each ride up to $62 a person each month. It will bill that to the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, which still needs to OK a grant of as much as $100,000 to fund the program.
“We see it as both helping with (the) Downtown parking shortage (and) the greater good of getting people off the roads. That keeps our costs down on the capital side, and it’s good for our air quality,” said Thea Walsh, MORPC’s transportation director.
The pilot program will run from May 1 through Dec. 31, 2016. During that time, the participants’ use of the service will be tracked to see if free access increases bus use among those in the pool.
Capital Crossroads has been driving the start of the program, and its members will have to decide before the end of this year if they want to pay higher assessments to bankroll passes for all Downtown workers, Ricksecker said.
The passes are modeled after a program that COTA has with Ohio State University, where students are charged a fee each semester that grants them unlimited bus access with their student ID cards. Those students account for about 10 percent of all of COTA’s ridership.
“For us, the benefit is it moves more people to transit,” COTA CEO Curtis Stitt said. “If it opens up parking, the property managers are going to say it has value to them.”
Capital Crossroads’ surveys show that about 6.5 percent of employees within the district already use public transit. If another 5 percent would shift, that would open about 1,800 parking spaces — the equivalent of building three parking garages, Ricksecker said.
Downtown still needs another parking garage, but that won’t absorb the pent-up demand, said Marc Conte, Capital Crossroads’ deputy director. Some garages have waiting lists of up to two years, and others have abandoned them altogether.
Some employers offer parking incentives for employees, but few give the same benefit for using public transportation, Ricksecker said. A free pass could influence those who are now paying to park.
“If you look at what their employees pay (for parking), it’s a great range,” Stitt said.
More than a decade ago, about 27 percent of Downtown commercial properties were vacant. That has dropped to 15 percent, but Conte said there is a fear that it could stall if more parking isn’t made available to businesses that want to bring workers Downtown.
“People really want to be Downtown,” he said. “But with that, we have some growing pains.”