Boost in COTA tax tossup at this point

The Columbus Dispatch – September 12, 1995

Franklin County residents are almost evenly split on COTA’s November ballot request to double its sales tax to 0.5 percent – and double bus service in the next century, a Gallup Poll conducted for The Dispatch says.

Of 801 people interviewed by telephone Aug. 27-30, 46 percent said they would vote for the tax increase, and 43 percent said they’d vote against it. Eleven percent were undecided.

The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. That means the request could be leading by as much as 50 percent to 39 percent, or trailing by as much as 47 percent to 42 percent.

Entering the campaign, the Central Ohio Transit Authority enjoys a favorable public image, the poll found. Among those surveyed, 72 percent expressed a favorable view of COTA; 19 percent had an unfavorable impression; 9 percent had no opinion.

Only four in 10 voters said they ever ride the bus – and more than half of those said they ride less than once a month. That is why a key to winning in November is an explanation of how bus service will be expanded, COTA General Manager Glenna Watson said. Buses will be added to existing routes, and routes will be created to the suburbs and employers along and outside I-270.

Watson said the Gallup results are more encouraging than results of a recent poll conducted by Saperstein Associates for the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. That poll showed the issue trailing.

But ”after they discussed the plan and people were educated, more said they would vote for it than would oppose it,” Watson said.

In the Gallup Poll, the tax increase was most strongly supported by younger voters. Among those 18-29, the issue was favored 49 percent to 41 percent. Among those 30-49, it was favored 48-44. Among those 50 and older, it was opposed by 44 percent and favored by 41 percent.

If approved, the 0.5 percent sales tax would run for 10 years and replace the 0.25 percent tax COTA has collected since 1990. The net effect would be to increase the local sales tax by 0.25 percentage point.

At first glance, support for the levy appears to have waned since a March Gallup Poll found that 58 percent supported a 0.5 percent sales tax for COTA. But at that time, a commuter rail line between the North Side and Downtown was planned. Since then, rail plans have been scrapped.

Lydia Saad, managing editor of the Gallup Poll, said that if light rail had not been part of the question in March, she believes the results would have resembled those of the most recent survey.

”It appears from the polls that there are separate constituencies for light rail and simple bus expansion, and if they were wedded in a single ballot issue, it would increase the likelihood of passage,” Saad said.

In the August poll, the tax increase was strongly supported by black voters – 54 percent were in favor and 36 percent opposed. White voters were split – 45 percent in support and 44 percent opposed.

Regionally, the tax was most strongly supported in northern Franklin County (49 percent to 40 percent). In the east, it was 45-44; south, 47-43; and west, 37-50.

More people in the west – 37 percent – than elsewhere said they wanted more bus service. One-quarter of residents in the north as well as one-quarter in southern Franklin County said more service is needed in their areas. To the east, only 19 percent said more service is needed there.

David Houston, 21, believes his East Side neighborhood is well-served, but he would like more-frequent service to the suburbs. Houston said he will vote for the tax increase. He rides the bus two or three times weekly.

”I don’t want to be taxed for things I can’t use,” said John Ward, 64, of Whitehall. He said riding the bus to work requires transfers and too much time. But he is not set in his opposition.

”It has not been presented to us how it would work, and how it would benefit people who use it,” he said.

Eric Brown, 35, said the cost of riding a COTA bus is higher than in cities he has visited, and he opposes an increase.

”It’s cheaper for me to drive” from his Northeast Side home to his Downtown office, where he parks free, Brown said.

He said he believes COTA generally is filling needs of the community, though it should serve large employers who are not on the bus lines now.

”I used to ride the bus when I was in college. But as you get older, you don’t want the hassle of the stops and the transfers, and you jump in the car and pay the parking,” said Julie Couts, 33, of Gahanna. ”If they had more express buses, they might appeal to more people, especially the older ones who could take advantage of it.”

She said she plans to vote for the increase.

In another ballot issue, the Franklin County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board is seeking a 2.4-mill levy for the next 10 years. It would replace a 2.2-mill levy that expires at the end of 1996.

In the poll, voters opposed the increase, 47 percent to 43 percent. Ten percent were undecided.

Support was split along party lines. Among Republicans, 57 percent opposed the increase; 35 percent supported it. Among Democrats, 50 percent were in favor and 39 percent opposed. Independents approved the increase, 47 percent to 43 percent.

The board is opening its campaign Sept. 19. The survey found that 31 percent of voters had never heard of, knew nothing about or had no opinion about the ADAMH board.