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Columbus Light Rail System Still Millions of Dollars Away

Ohio's share of the Federal Reinvestment and Recovery Act does not, as officials had hoped, contain funding for a light rail system in Columbus. The Central Ohio Transit Authority wanted several hundred million dollars for the project. Instead, COTA is expected to receive much less.

Commuter mass transportation around Columbus will mean riding the bus for the foreseeable future. Officials had requested $200 million of stimulus money. With it, the Central Ohio Transit Authority would have built a light rail system heading north from downtown. What COTA will get is an estimated $14 million. Money that comes with strings attached. It cannot be spent on things like diesel fuel. But it can buy new equipment. So that's what company president Bill Lhota is planning to do.

"It's things that we need but it's things that will stimulate the economy," Lhota says.

They're not glamorous things. COTA plans to replace 26 worn out hydraulic bus lifts in its service garage. It also will purchase sophisticated brake testing and tire pressure gauging equipment. A portion of the $14 million might even be spent on new buses somewhere down the road. Lhota says the money does come at a good time for COTA which is experiencing a steady increase in ridership.

"Last week our ridership was up over 20 percent compared to the week in 2008. And to me that indicates that people are moving to, continuing to ride public transportation."

Lhota says commuters have discovered that COTA is an attractive alternative to driving. Riders may have abandoned their cars when gas hit $4 a gallon, but Lhota says the shaky economy is a major reason that ridership remains strong. He also says bus passengers appreciate improvements in service.

"I like to think that they're finding a better product, but they're also finding that it's an alternative to high priced gasoline, the cost of commuting, the cost of parking," Lhota says. "They found it works for them when gas was $4, I think they're continuing to ride and I think they're telling their friends."

COTA expects to receive its stimulus dollars sometime in the next few weeks.