Will Intel spur mass transit or inspire more car-driven sprawl?

Publicly funded transit must have a place alongside publicly funded auto travel in the massive Licking County Intel development, our columnist argues. But that’s easier said than done.

Brian Williams
May 12, 2022: The heart of the Intel plant will be located on these farm fields at the corner of Green Chapel Road (bottom of photo) and Mink Street (left) in Licking County, Ohio.

Intel is about to reshape the landscape of Central Ohio.

That could be a very good thing. It also could be a very, very bad thing. If you’re going to put money on one of those, keep in mind that Ohio has never been very good at planning for efficient and effective use of its land.

It’s difficult for neighboring municipalities and counties to work together on changes that affect multiple jurisdictions because Ohio has had a strong “home rule” heritage for its cities (except when the General Assembly doesn’t like what the voters and leaders of cities want to do). Even the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) has little authority from the state as it educates and cajoles its member governments.

Instead, state and local policy has long tended to lure and/or follow business and industry to so-called "undeveloped” farmland and pay for the costs of their moves to the hinterlands, where transit is not feasible. That means building and expanding big highways, like the Overbuilt Outerbelt of I-270 on the East Side.

With Intel bringing thousands of employees to the vanishing farmland halfway between Columbus and Newark, we can routinely dump hundreds of millions of dollars into ever-widening I-270 and Rt. 161. Or we could connect with the 21st century and build an easier-to-maintain and higher-capacity rail line.

But, then, Ohio has never been very good at planning for efficient and effective mass transportation, either — at least not over the past century.

What is believed to be the nation’s first electrified interurban passenger line opened between Newark and Granville in 1890. Over the next two decades, Ohio had almost 3,000 miles of interurban rail — far more than any other state. The Columbus, New Albany & Johnstown line operated from 1901 to 1923. But the privately built interurban lines disappeared as quickly as they sprang up due to competition from automobiles, which became more popular with the growth of publicly built roads.

Ever since, Ohio’s (and America’s) land-use plans have basically followed the cars along those publicly built roads, leading to the perverse accusation that publicly funded transit agencies can survive only through subsidies.

Publicly funded transit must have a place alongside publicly funded auto travel in the massive Intel development. But that’s easier said than done.

It’s not just a matter of getting people from Columbus to Intel. It’s about understanding and shaping the region’s needs over the next several decades. Failure to do so would extend the tentacles of sprawl all the way from Columbus to Newark. The advantage of rail is that walkable communities could develop at stations along the way and avoid the spread-out development and parking lots that would gobble up the rest of the rich farmland in western Licking County.

Transportation planning cannot be separated from the land-use planning. If the site is developed in a way intended to accommodate cars, it will be chock-full of cars no matter how much transit exists. Instead, the area should be laid out in a way that accommodates transit and pedestrians. That will be hard to achieve because the existing, meticulously planned (yet seemingly random) sprawl of offices, warehouses and other businesses already dominates the area. 

The New Albany International Business Park reaches north and south of Ohio Rt. 161, as well as east and west of US Rt. 62, with multiple freeway interchanges feeding it. On one hand, that spreads the current 40,000 cars per day among different exits. On the other hand, it spreads all the businesses and people so far apart that nothing is walkable or conducive to transit.

Yet that is the configuration that New Albany’s community development director, in a February Columbus Dispatch article, called “a great example of proactive planning from a land use standpoint.”

The $20 billion Intel development and the 3,000 permanent jobs in the initial phase (not counting thousands of construction and other temporary jobs) is assisted by more than $2 billion in Ohio taxpayer support — not to mention 30 years of tax abatements from New Albany — for the first two of several eventual factories.

The $2.1 billion in state incentives includes $691 million for regional infrastructure. Of that, according to a Dispatch article in January, $300 million is for a water reclamation facility, $290 million for road work and $101 million for water and wastewater capacity. No mention of transit.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), however, is interested in greater regional outreach, and the Licking County Transit Board is developing links with COTA. That may sound promising, but it’s a tiny step in a state that ranks 45th in the nation for transit spending.

Brian Williams is a consultant and freelance writer. A former Columbus Dispatch reporter, he is retired from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.