Green efforts increase in downtown Columbia

Columbia cuts costs and adds revenue with new, environmentally friendly changes including electric buses.

Initiatives to make downtown Columbia more environmentally friendly are increasing as more residents move into the district (and bring fewer cars with them).

Pedestrian and bike traffic is being acknowledged by the city through infrastructure changes that include concrete walls and new crosswalk signals. The nod to nontraditional commute takes a more nuanced form too, as small changes improve public spaces with an eye for the environmentally conscious. Here’s a look at some of the things that have changed downtown.

Green public transit

Four electric buses will join COMO Connect’s 11 routes this fall for at least a year while the city evaluates their long-term worth.

BYD Motors, an electric bus manufacturer, approached the city in the spring touting the benefits of electric buses and offered the city a trial run.

For at least one year, the city will see how electric buses perform in all weather and route conditions. If they prove to be an asset, the city may make them permanent.

COMO Connect multi-modal manager Drew Brooks said the buses were a no-brainer.

Electric buses save on fuel and maintenance costs. On average, each bus in Columbia burns $70 worth of fuel a day, Brooks said. During a trial run this summer, the most expensive charge cost $10.

Brooks said he sees the most significant savings in maintenance. Electric buses have two electric motors with 75 horsepower and no fuel belts or filter systems, he said. Brooks said he expects each bus will save the city from $4,500 to $6,000 per month.

Brooks said he thinks driver education will make the buses even more cost effective. A diesel engine has airbrakes that must be pressed by the driver. In an electric vehicle, the driver takes her foot off the gas and the vehicle stops itself, converting the energy from that motion back into the battery.

Each bus has a range of about 200 miles. The longest routes in Columbia are between 120 to 160 miles long, Brooks said. Buses will be charged overnight and ready for a full day’s driving the next morning.

Part of the trial run with BYD Motors included a demo bus that was on the streets for three weeks during the summer. Syez Ejaz, the Missouri Student Association Campus Community Relations Committee head, rode an electric bus on the Tiger Line.

“I had a very positive experience,” he said. “The inside (of the bus) feels very updated, you can tell it’s electric by the way the bus handles and moves.”

A Downtown event venue

Cherry Street in downtown Columbia may be upgraded to a downtown corridor with new lighting, an improved treescape and more development.

The Downtown Leadership Council chose Cherry Street as the site for a potential redevelopment. Its location and infrastructure made Cherry Street a good candidate, said Chairman Brent Gardner.

Cherry Street stretches from Hitt Street to Flatbranch Park and is on the west side of downtown, which has yet to see the influx of student housing. That leaves more room for business development, Gardner said. More businesses and landscaping could increase pedestrian traffic and economic activity.

Gardner said the proximity with the park could make it a good space for outdoor events. For an occasion like an outdoor concert or festival, Cherry Street could be blocked to traffic, increasing Flatbranch Park’s value.

Councilmember Scott Wilson said the council was interested in Cherry Street for its existing infrastructure. The street’s foundation is brick, and three blocks are currently exposed.

Uncovering the rest of brick along the now-paved roads would make the space feel more historic and pedestrian friendly than a paved road, Wilson said.

The council is still working on the plans and has not presented it to City Council yet. Gardner said business owners and city officials have responded positively to the idea.

Better air, bigger trees and cleaner water

City Council accepted a donation to construct a new tree planter in downtown Columbia at its meeting July 20. The planter will give the trees’ roots more room to grow while treating storm water and improving air quality.

The $20,000 donation from the Downtown Community Improvement District will be supplemented with $10,000 from the city’s Annual Street Landscaping budget. The project is estimated to cost $30,000.

Right now, all of the city’s trees are planted in tree boxes, which restrict the growth of healthy trees, stormwater educator Mike Heimos said.

The improved tree planters will create space underneath cement walkways using a concept called “suspended pavement,” according to a City Council document. The weight of the pavement will be supported, creating space for the trees’ roots to expand.

With the current tree box style, Heimos said most trees only live for 20 years. With this method, the city expects a tree lifespan of about 60 years.

Having larger, healthier trees will improve air quality and lower temperatures, making the downtown area more inviting, Heimos said. Stormwater runoff can be directed to the trees, providing natural stormwater filtration.

The placement and species of tree is still under consideration. Heimos said the city is working with arborists to determine what kind of tree would be best suited to the new model. The city is contacting business owners with the possibility of putting the new tree near their property. Heimos said the tree will have signs explaining the new model and be educational.

The city expects construction to begin in fiscal year 2016 with more tree planters to follow, Heimos said.

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