On a brisk winter day, passengers huddle outside the Linden Transit Center waiting to board their COTA bus. Riders swiped passes one by one and inserted change into the pay machines.
One trip costs $2, and you can only pay with cash or prepaid passes. The busses don’t take credit cards.
A monthly COTA pass costs $62, a hefty fee for Skyler Johnson, who uses COTA to take her daughter to daycare and then get to work. This month, she had to skip her phone bill to pay for her bus pass.
“If anybody wants to get in contact with me, then they can’t right now because my phone’s off,” Johnson says. “Right now, I need to be making calls to welfare and work right now, but I actually have to wait until I get home and use the house phone. It holds me up.”
She says not having to pay for the bus would help her pay her bills on time.
“A lot,” Johnson says. “Like a big burden just came up off my chest.”
Bob Weiler, a Central Ohio developer and former board member of the Central Ohio Transit Authority, has a radical idea to make COTA more accessible: free rides for everyone.
Weiler has dreamed of a free COTA for years. If it happens, Columbus would be the first major city in the country with a free public transit system. But there's a lot of obstacles standing in his way.
Free Buses, Fewer Cars
Weiler says he wants to relieve the burden of public transportation costs for Johnson and the 19 million other people who ride COTA each year.
“I would love to see Columbus be the first city in the country that has free ridership,” Weiler says.
In fact, several other cities already have free public transportation, including Chapel Hill, N.C. and Missoula, Mont. But Columbus would be by far the largest.
Weiler knows the system well, after serving on the COTA board for 12 years.
“’Free’ is the number one word in marketing. So to say the bus is free, can you imagine people coming here from out of town?” Weiler says. “‘Columbus, that’s the city with free public transit!’”
Weiler says a free COTA would not only help low-income riders pay their bills, it would also encourage others to ride the bus, taking more cars and trucks off the roads.
“This city, if we do nothing, is going to find itself in gridlock when it comes to traffic,” Weiler says. “So it’s time that we do something now.”
Such a major change won’t be cheap. Passenger fares made up 12.3 percent of COTA’s revenues in the 2019 budget. Weiler suggests a small increase in the county sales tax—an idea given to him by a prominent city leader he declines to name. WOSU was not able to get in contact with that individual.
“One proposal I think would be simplest and easiest is to increase the sales tax by 0.1 percent," Weiler says. "That’s less than a penny for a $10 purchase."
Right now, COTA is mostly funded by a 0.5 percent local sales tax. Weiler thinks even non-riders would support the proposal, because it would reduce road congestion.
To increase COTA's funding, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners would have to approve a sales tax increase or put the issue up for vote. Weiler says he pitched his idea to commission members privately. But commissioner Kevin Boyce says raising the sales tax isn’t a good idea.
“If the suggestion is to raise the sales tax, there is an impact on the same people we’re trying to help. Sales tax is a broad tax,” Boyce says. “And so everyone pays it, no matter how much you make or how least you make.”
Last fall, commissioners formed a committee to assess poverty in the county and work towards alleviating it. Boyce says transportation is certainly an area of focus. He doesn’t discredit the idea of free bussing, but wonders how it would be paid for.
“The idea is a big idea that I think has merit,” Boyce says. “How to pay for it and the best way to not counter its impact is something we need to talk about.”
COTA representatives declined to comment, noting that the public transit system has never proposed or advocated for free bussing for all.
No Movement Yet
The bus system is already free for some downtown business employees, because a coalition of downtown property owners pay for those fares. The program provides 45,000 workers free COTA access through 2020.
Outside of that program, there's no official movement on the idea of universal free bussing right now. Weiler says a growing community of business leaders hope to make a stronger push for the idea, but the timeline is not clear. Meanwhile, he continues to work behind the scenes on his proposal.
For Benita Williams, who takes COTA from the North Side to the East Side to work at T-Mobile, free bussing remains a dream.
"Save me $20 a week!" she says, laughing.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Columbus would be the first city with free public transportation. It would, however, be the first major city to do so.