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Building owners might subsidize free bus passes for 40,000 Downtown workers

More than 40,000 Downtown workers could receive free bus service under a plan to free up thousands of parking spaces and increase the renting of office space.

Half of the $5 million cost to provide the passes for more than 2½ years would come from 550 owners of properties in the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, who would pay 3 cents per square foot of space per year, said Cleve Ricksecker, executive director of the district. Capital Crossroads would seek grants from foundations and others to pay the rest of the cost.

Capital Crossroads would team with COTA to provide the bus passes for district workers from June 1, 2018, to the end of 2020.

An $80,000 test program that ran from June 2015 through January 2017 involved 844 employees at four companies in the district. In that test program, the proportion of those commuting by bus almost doubled, from 6.4 percent to 12.2 percent.

One was Erica Taffany, who had never ridden a bus before she started working at a Downtown law firm, where she is a marketing and communications director.

“Door to desk, my commute was much shorter than if I had driven,” Taffany said of the 2-mile commute Downtown from her Merion Village home.

The bus ride gave her time to read, listen to podcasts and check emails while saving her at least $150 per month in parking costs.

“It was wonderful,” she said.

The program also is good for property owners, who face an office vacancy rate of 19 percent and rents that have tumbled 28 percent over the past 15 years, Ricksecker said.

Major employers, including Huntington Bank, have told Capital Crossroads they want to add workers Downtown, but there isn’t enough parking. Providing alternatives to driving will help, Ricksecker thinks.

“We’ve defined our capacity by the number of cars Downtown, and we’re at capacity,” Ricksecker said.

If results from the bus-pass test hold up and the program opens to all 41,165 district workers, Capital Crossroads estimates that it would free up 2,400 parking spaces — about four parking garages — and allow for 2,900 more people to work in the district. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people would trade their cars for COTA on their commute, the district estimates.

For its part, COTA is offering Capital Crossroads a deal on the passes. A $744 annual pass would cost the district just $40.50.

“We’d like to have more riders,” COTA spokesman Marty Stutz said. “We (also) want a more robust and vibrant Downtown.”

The deal is especially important for the district’s low-wage employees. Although Downtown has jobs that pay well, it also has many low-paying jobs, especially in the service industry. Of Downtown workers, 19 percent make $25,000 or less a year, and 8 percent are paid less than 150 percent of the poverty level.

Those employees usually can’t afford to drive to work and park, Ricksecker said, resulting in what property owners tell him is high worker turnover that hurts business.

Increasing parking isn’t feasible, Ricksecker said, because a parking garage costs tens of millions of dollars. Fewer are being built because of programs such as this one that aim to increase alternatives to one person driving to work and parking all day.

“To save $110, $115 per month, people figure out where their bus stop is,” Ricksecker said.

If matching money is found for the program, it will be the first in the country to be funded by property owners, Ricksecker said.

For the program to start June 1, 2018, as planned, Capital Crossroads must decide by August and secure funding for the program by then.

“If the numbers do grow, we’ll change a culture,” COTA’s Stutz said.


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