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Getting People to the Jobs They Need

Booming exurban logistics centers have trouble filling jobs. One city has come up with a promising transportation solution.

The efficient movement and storage of goods is crucial to today's economy, and the logistics industry is one of the few remaining career fields in which someone with no more than a high-school education can start at an entry-level position and work his or her way to the top. Yet even as so many Americans look for work, a lot of these jobs go unfilled. Workforce availability is a major concern for the industry and often a factor in selecting sites for new or expanded investments.

While there are many causes for this paradox, the largest challenge is the physical separation between new logistics centers in exurban areas and potential employees who live near city cores. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Midwest, where major freight facilities have developed to support the growing intermodal container market. These large rail facilities are generally located away from rail and roadway congestion and residential areas -- and therefore away from the largest pool of available employees.

Expanding public transportation would seem to be the obvious answer, but the solution is not that simple. The largest impediment is the incompatibility of traditional transit service with the sprawling development pattern required in large logistics centers. It is cost-prohibitive to provide transit service that could effectively cover such a large, spread-out area with the frequency required by potential riders.

It's a situation that calls for innovative, tailored transportation solutions, and one small Ohio city has figured out one way to bridge the gap. Groveport, located just outside of Columbus and with a population of 5,400, is home to the Rickenbacker Inland Port, which employs nearly 20,000 people. While the port spans several jurisdictions, most of the area's warehouses are in Groveport -- so many, in fact, that they account for nearly 80 percent of the city's tax base.

In 2014, Groveport's warehouses had difficulties finding seasonal employees for the holiday push. One even hired a shuttle-bus service to connect its facilities to the corresponding workforce located in Columbus proper. Originally intended to be a temporary solution, the initiative was so successful that the logistics industry approached Groveport to help find a permanent solution.

Recognizing the importance of the logistics industry to the community, Groveport set out to create a shuttle-bus network to seamlessly connected the Columbus region's Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) transit system to Rickenbacker-area businesses. With technical assistance from COTA and a private shuttle provider, the community created the Groveport Rickenbacker Employee Access Transit service, known by the acronym GREAT. Riders of the COTA system pay no additional fare to transfer to the GREAT system's three routes. The system carried 24,274 riders in 2016.

While GREAT operates as an extension of the regional transit system, it is supported by local funding, along with a small private-sector match. Moving forward, Groveport is working with regional public and private partners to expand the system and diversity its funding sources to ensure its long-term success.

The GREAT system is a significant step forward in the challenge of connecting exurban logistics centers and urban residents who are searching for the $16-an-hour jobs that areas like Rickenbacker offer. Building creatively upon a temporary solution, Groveport is not only protecting and retaining its local tax base but also is providing a significant ladder of opportunity for residents of its region who need those jobs the most.

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