Survey finds COTA enjoys high support

The Columbus Dispatch – April 2, 1995

During the same week COTA killed plans for light-rail transit, 58 percent of surveyed Franklin County residents said they would support a November sales tax levy to pay for it, a Gallup Poll conducted for The Dispatch shows.

The poll results, based on telephone interviews with 824 Franklin County adults between Tuesday and Thursday, showed that although the majority of those surveyed have a favorable opinion of the Central Ohio Transit Authority and support a sales tax increase, only one in 10 use COTA buses with any frequency.

The poll’s margin of sampling error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

After studying transit expansion and Franklin County transportation needs for nearly two years – including plans for light-rail trains – the COTA board voted unanimously on Wednesday to drop rail and concentrate on expanding its current bus service.

COTA officials blamed expected cuts in federal transit subsidies that could eliminate money for new rail projects.

Initial plans called for asking Franklin County voters to support at least a 10-year, 0.5 percent sales tax to help pay for doubling COTA bus service and building an 11.2-mile, light-rail system on High Street Downtown and along the city’s North Side.

The cost was estimated at about $522 million.

The Gallup/Dispatch survey found that nearly six in 10 residents believe getting around Franklin County by car is very difficult or somewhat difficult, but that only about three in 10 would make use of an expanded bus system.

When asked whether buses or light rail should be a higher priority for COTA, 48 percent favored buses; 41 percent chose light-rail.

Of those who ride the bus daily or weekly, 73 percent said they favor expanding the current system over creating light rail, as do about half of less-frequent users.

David Holmquist, 45, a consultant from Bexley and poll participant, said although he never uses COTA, he prefers light-rail transit over expanded bus service.

Either way, he said he would support a sales tax levy and would ride light-rail trains at least once a month.

”I don’t know that much about light rail in this area, but I lived in Chicago for 12 years and used it there,” he said. ”It is the most efficient way to move people around.”

Holmquist said he supports most local tax issues.

”I’m not one of those people who believes I’m overtaxed on the local level,” he said.

Polls conducted by Saperstein Associates for COTA last summer and in January showed similar results.

Last summer’s poll showed that 49 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for a sales tax increase to help pay for expanded bus service and light-rail transit. The January poll showed 53 percent in favor.

In the Gallup/Dispatch survey, 66 percent said they strongly or moderately favored a light-rail system. But less than one in 10 said they would ride it daily.

”It’s a civic-minded response,” said Lydia Saad, a survey analyst for The Gallup Organization. ”People recognize the economic and environmental benefits of mass transit . . . but the fact that it appealed to those least likely to use it is very interesting. The usage would be questionable.”

Sharon Hinkle, 48, of Grove City, a part-time baby sitter, hasn’t used COTA for 20 years. She said, however, that she likes the novelty of light rail.

”I would use it out of curiosity,” she said. ”It sounds like a thing of the future, a really nice way to get you there.”

Hinkle said she hopes public transportation doesn’t die because a lot of older people depend on it. She said she would vote for a sales tax levy in November to support both light rail and expanded bus service.

Among whites in the survey, the ballot issue was supported by 55 percent and opposed by 41 percent; among blacks, it was supported by 70 percent and opposed by 25 percent.

The strongest support for a levy came from northern Franklin County, with 60 percent in favor. The lowest level of support – 53 percent – came from the southern and eastern parts of the county.

Robert McCague, 71, who lives near Westland Mall, never rides the bus. He said going to taxpayers to fund a light-rail system would be ”stupid.”

”I think light rail should be able to make it on its own,” he said.

McCague, a retired Westinghouse employee, said he thinks public transportation in Columbus is mismanaged.

”I live near Broad Street and I watch great big old buses pass by with only four to five riders.”

Mildred Helms, 59, a waitress who lives on the city’s West Side, finds it very easy to get around Franklin County and never uses COTA.

She said although she favors the idea of light rail, she would not support a sales tax levy to pay for it.

”It’s mainly because I don’t feel that they use their money wisely,” she said. ”I just feel (COTA) is forever going to the taxpayers, and you never see the results of what they are promising.”