Bus service in Columbus was on the edge of extinction.
Coaches would no longer roll up to passengers waiting on sidewalks. The people who rely on public transit to get to work or their doctor's office would have to find another way. The wheels were coming off.
Mayor Tom Moody didn't want City Hall to bail out the Columbus Transit Co. Franklin County voters had narrowly defeated an attempt to raise taxes to save the system.
Enter the Central Ohio Transit Authority, Jan. 1, 1974.
It has been 40 years since a group of local governments bought the privately run bus system. The years have been pockmarked with financial problems and early union strife, but the authority is growing again. The buses are still rolling.
When Franklin County, Columbus and 10 of its suburbs bought the Columbus Transit Co. in 1973 for $4.8 million, bus service was focused Downtown. But the explosion of homes and businesses along I-270, particularly on the Far North Side, made it more practical to run buses to far-flung employment centers and set up park-and-ride facilities to bring people in the suburbs Downtown.
The problem was, and continues to be, that buses in the suburbs aren't as full as those in the city, said Mike Greene, a former COTA planning director. That makes them less cost-effective.
"You had a lot of low-density development occurring on the periphery of the city, and it's difficult to serve that," he said.
Local officials have studied light rail at different times as a means to shuttle people into and out of Downtown, but efforts to build it have failed, at times because of lack of community support and at others because of lack of federal funding.
Federal and state funding for a line between Downtown and Polaris seemed certain in 1999, but voters defeated a sales tax that would have supplied a local share for the project.
Former CEO Bill Lhota said he "drove a spike through the heart of light rail in 2005" because the authority was foundering amid financial problems and an ethics scandal involving a board member the previous COTA head had hired at a six-figure salary.
"We said we need to be the best bus company there is before we can think about alternative forms of transportation," Lhota said.
Former Transit Workers Union President Hubert Snead, who was elected in 1988, said he supported efforts to start light rail. General Manager Richard Simonetta left COTA in 1994 and subsequently helped develop rail lines in Atlanta and Phoenix.
"For Columbus to really prosper great, it's going to need rapid transit," Snead said.
Since COTA's inception, the authority has struggled with its finances. Voters passed a property tax to buy the Columbus Transit Co. in 1973, and that was later repealed in favor of a temporary sales tax.
COTA has had six tax requests pass and six fail since May 1972. It wasn't until 1999 — when voters approved a permanent 0.25 percent sales tax — that COTA had a stable, long-term funding source.
"The real driving force was always money," said Greene, the former planning director. "It was always the level of funding you had to work with."
Local taxes provide the bulk of operating money for transit agencies. Fares cover about 20 percent of expenses, and COTA also receives some state and federal money. COTA won't look at raising its $2 fare again until the end of 2014.
The permanent funding source paired with an additional temporary tax that voters approved in 2006 — for a total sales tax of 0.5 percent — have helped COTA grow.
Lhota said the transit authority was providing more service than it could afford and its fleet was showing its age when he took over in 2004.
Today, COTA is on a schedule to replace all of its buses. The authority bought its first 30 CNG — compressed natural gas — buses this year and plans to cycle out all of its diesel coaches over the next 12 years to save on fuel costs. It also spent $41.5 million to rehab its McKinley Avenue bus depot and build a CNG fueling station.