By Jason Wilcox
“Believe it or not, when I started working on transit, I had hair.”
Mayor Bob McDavid of Columbia, Missouri, joked about the stressful discussions surrounding the city’s public transit system. The conversations kept circling back to whether the financial impact of public transit was positive or negative. City representatives and pro-public transit groups searched for ways to keep the transit system economically feasible, while many opponents wondered why the city continued to subsidize what they saw as a non-essential service.
To take a new approach, in 2013 a Health Impact Assessment was conducted, providing an opportunity to present information through a health lens – not the usual frame for discussing public transit. The Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services focused the HIA on the potential impacts of expanding the public transit system on physical activity, mobility and access to jobs, health care, employment, and social capital.
With the release of the HIA, transit policy started moving. Within three months, Columbia Transit presented a draft of a new, budget-neutral public transit system, COMO Connect. The new system would feature neighborhood routes, as recommended by the HIA, ensuring access to essential services. New routes would run near large employers, health care facilities, and stores that offered healthy food options. After a year of public input, COMO Connect began running the new routes on August 4, 2014.
After completion of the initial HIA, a subsequent assessment was performed to focus on the potential health impacts of a transportation utility fee to help fund COMO Connect. The fee would be tacked on to residents’ utility bills, allowing them to ride the bus without paying a fare. The assessment found that the additional fee could hurt low-income households. Interviews with local residents discovered that many in the community already go without food or medical care due to high utility bills. This potential funding source is still being considered by the City, with a likely vote in 2016.
The completed HIAs have not only strengthened existing partnerships between the health department and community organizations, but have also allowed for the creation of new relationships. The interest in HIAs continues to grow in the community, with various City departments choosing to approach issues from a health perspective. The value of seeking out changes that impact the City’s overall landscape and infrastructure, as well as changes that positively impact citizen health, is becoming clearer.
Jason Wilcox is a Senior Planner with the Columbia/Boone County Dept. of Public Health & Human Services in Columbia, Missouri.