There are a lot of big plans being made in Central Ohio right now. From mass transit to housing to bikeways to waterways, there’s an intricate and detailed plan being discussed, revised or implemented at this very moment. And while each plan has its own group to oversee and execute, one of the major roles of the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) is to sometimes act as the glue to hold all of these plans together.
We were recently given an opportunity to sit down with MORPC Executive Director William Murdock to get updates across each of these plans and learn a bit more about how they all interconnect.
“We help Central Ohio get ready for growth by planning for transportation, sustainability, demographic change, and housing — and how that all comes together,” he stated.
We’ve been slowly releasing video snippets from our conversation with Murdock over on our TikTok account — and the response so far has been stellar. The Amtrak video has been viewed over 40,000 times at the time of publishing (with another 116,000 views on Instagram reels), racking up thousands of likes and hundreds of (mostly supportive) comments in the process.
You can view our entire 20 minute conversation over on our YouTube channel (don’t forget to follow us on YouTube, while you’re there), but we also wanted to include a couple of written updates for anyone who doesn’t want to be bothered with video watching or social media channels.
Amtrak: Rolling Down the Track
The expansion of Amtrak in Ohio is not a new conversation. But the current plans have a stronger push than in the past, and Murdock says he’s very optimistic about the progress so far.
“What’s different this time is that we have support from the business community in Central Ohio, the Governor’s Office and the Ohio Rail Development Commission,” he explained. “They have encouraged us to go forward, and in March there were two applications to bring passenger rail back to Columbus.”
One application is for the 3C+D line that would link Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati, while the other is for a Chicago to Columbus to Pittsburgh route. If built as planned, the two lines would intersect at the Columbus Convention Center.
“We did a survey for our annual event, partnering with Ohio State and The Dispatch, and it found that 90% of the respondents in a 15-county survey supported passenger rail,” added Murdock. “So the enthusiasm of the public is there.”
Population Growth: Columbus is Booming
In February, the previously reported population growth projection of three million Central Ohio residents by the year 2050 was updated to 3.15 million. Murdock stated that part of the increased growth pattern is due to the Intel investment.
“We looked at other communities around the country when they’ve had big projects like Intel, and it showed about a 5% increase,” he explained. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s 150,000 people. That means that from now through 2050, we’re expecting about three quarters of a million new people.”
Murdock added that these types of forecasting studies have a range to them, so the final numbers could be a bit higher or lower, and the growth could happen faster or slower, which depends on a wide variety of factors.
“We’re going to grow — the underlying demographics are there, but when we project it out, a lot of it’s going to depend on migration,” he added. “We get about a quarter of our growth from immigration. If that goes up or down, that could change.”
Housing: Can We Build Enough to Meet Demand?
With 750,000 new residents arriving in the next 27 years, one of the most pressing questions is whether or not Columbus and its suburbs can build enough housing to meet the growing demand.
“We’re already facing a lack of housing at different levels of the market right now, especially in the the low priced or workforce or affordable housing,” stated Murdock. “Growth is only going to accentuate that. So we’re really worried about us falling further and further behind.”
Murdock points to MORPC’s recent work on the Regional Housing Strategy as a step in the right direction for planning and implementation. But when benchmarking with other metro areas of a similar size, Columbus is building sometimes 50% less housing than other high-growth markets.
LinkUS: Gearing Up for a Big Vote in 2024
In March, it was unveiled that the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) would be putting a levy on the ballot in 2024 to help pay for the ambitious $8 billion LinkUs transit expansion program that would bring high-capacity lines to dense corridors throughout the region.
With 18 months to go, can COTA drum up enough public support to get that levy passed?
“What we need to do when we’re talking with members of the community is to make it relevant,” said Murdock. “We can talk as planners about BRT and TSI — and that doesn’t mean anything to most people. So talking about how this gives access to jobs, and could open up new housing that’s close to work or close to amenities — this helps to correct long-standing problems where the community hasn’t done enough in certain neighborhoods.”
Zoning In on Zoning
Officials with the City of Columbus have big plans to update the city’s zoning code for the first time in over 70 years. In April, a two-step approach was unveiled that would first update higher density zoning along corridors before moving deeper into residential neighborhoods. With housing needs at such a high priority, some have questioned whether the approach would move the needle fast enough on housing.
“I think when you talk about overhauling a zoning code that hasn’t been updated in 50 to 60 years — and we’re continuing to add people as we go — there’s a lot of moving pieces, and there’s a lot of complexity,” stated Murdock. “So focusing on the areas of highest impact — I think that makes a lot of sense.”
Is RAPID 5 Dead in the Water?
Shortly before our interview with William Murdock, the news broke that Dr. Amy Acton was stepping down from her role as president and CEO of RAPID 5, the regional collaborative project that would connect Central Ohio’s waterways and natural resources in more comprehensive ways.
Some of the initial reactions to the news were concerns that the project might get cancelled or delayed with such an abrupt loss of leadership. Murdock says that he remains bullish on the future of RAPID 5.
“I think the enthusiasm is the strongest ever,” he said. “Amy Acton built an organization to take this vision and make it into something tangible. She helped start the 501c3, she put together a really impressive passionate board, brought in $3 million in terms of commitment, and that is a heck of a start to move to the next phase.”
Murdock says that RAPID 5 needs to move quickly into the first phases of implementation to keep the momentum moving in the right direction.
“We’re set up well to do that,” he added. “That same survey that we did on passenger rail also asked people what things they wanted in their community — and I’m generalizing a little bit — but basically they said they want all of the options, and trails are a big part of that.”
Regional Collaboration: Are the Suburbs on Board with Change?
While Columbus is by far the largest city within the Central Ohio region, MORPC works with over 85 municipal partners — ranging from larger suburbs to smaller townships and villages. When it comes to collaborative efforts to address sprawl, affordable housing, walkable neighborhoods and transportation, are the smaller suburbs going to be willing to make some changes to adapt to new growth?
“Each of our communities have their own constituents, processes, history and character, so we’ve got to work through that,” explained Murdock. “But when we show them the benefits and how how to navigate some of these issues, we’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm in places you might not normally expect it.”
He points to recent planning initiatives and denser developments in Reynoldsburg, Whitehall and Dublin as examples of progress. And notes that every community along passenger rail corridors has been very excited about the possibilities that change could bring.
“I don’t want to sound like it’s not going to be a lot of tough conversations, but I think there there’s been a shift to thinking really thoughtfully and quickly about this,” Murdock added.
Are Any of Our Problems in Columbus Actually Unique?
Whether we’re talking about rising housing costs, inadequate funding for transportation, suburban sprawl, gentrification, or any other issues, they can often feel like localized problems. But in reality, most major American cities deal with the same problems to varying degrees.
“When we’re looking at demographics and growth there are things that are purely local or regional, but there are also other things that are completely out of the region’s control,” said Murdock. “But when I think of Columbus as it compares to other places, I think we’re behind on transportation options. It is a national problem, but we are uniquely behind.”
Housing is another example that Murdock points out as being both a national issue to address, but with unique local parameters that differ from similarly sized cities.
“We’re subject to the national trends on costs and mortgage rates and all that stuff, but when we look around at other regions that are the same size as us and they’re building twice as much housing, that means we have to do some thoughtful planning and thinking and looking at our policies,” he adds. “If we want more housing we’re clearly not doing it as well as Indianapolis or Charlotte.”
Staying Up to Date with MORPC
Of course, you can follow MORPC on your social media platform of choice, but I wanted to ask Murdock about ways the general public could get involved beyond the basics.
“One thing that I like to recommend for people who are leaders or aspiring leaders or want to be more engaged, we have a whole host of committees and task forces and work groups, so there’s a way to get engaged if you care about trails or data or transportation,” he stated. “We also run programs that help low-income and vulnerable families with home repair and weatherization and energy efficiency and I say that because if any of your readers have friends or family members or colleagues who are struggling with that, we have free programs and we have capacity.”
For more information, visit www.morpc.org.