News: Turning Back the Bus

Global warming or not, burbs balk at bus service

Sean Hughes

Even as Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials discuss expanding the area's public bus system to make it truly regional, at least two suburbs are asking to have their Metro bus service scaled back or eliminated altogether.

Colerain Township Trustees are trying to stop part of the Route 41 Cross Town bus service that runs from Oakley through several inner-city neighborhoods before ending near the Northgate Mall. Trustees say the service is causing safety and litter problems in the township, as well as loitering at the mall.

Meanwhile, Mason City Council last month informed Metro that it would no longer pay its share for two bus routes, one to the Kings Island amusement park and another that provides express service from Warren County to downtown Cincinnati during morning and evening rush hours.

Mass transit advocates believe the actions are based on a misconception that public transportation increases crime and is a coded form of racial prejudice, similar to the one that fueled white flight from urban centers to the suburbs in the 1950s and '60s.

Colerain Township's and Mason's actions come at the same time as economic development experts say Greater Cincinnati needs more mass transit options — not fewer — to attract jobs and companies and to become competitive with more prosperous cities nationwide.

Such scaling back also is at odds with a recent push by County Commissioner Todd Portune and Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley to have outlying suburbs in Butler, Clermont and Warren counties form funding partnerships — joint economic development districts — that would pay for new routes throughout their communities.

"I view these kinds of positions as an isolationist approach," Portune says. "That is not how we need to develop as a county or as a region if we're going to be successful."

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), which operates the Metro system, was scheduled to decide on the Colerain Township request at its Oct. 16 board meeting.

After much review, SORTA administrators were recommending the board approve ending the portion of Route 41 that travels through the township.

When Colerain Township Trustees wrote to SORTA in August, requesting an end to the Cross Town route there, they called it "unnecessary and unwanted service." Their letter began: "During recent months there has been a substantial increase in complaints from residents of Colerain Township regarding Metro busses (sic) in our neighborhoods."

The letter continues: "Despite logging tremendous amounts of complaints from residents and businesses, Metro continues not only to ignore their concerns but have actually traveled deeper into our neighborhoods and increase the amount of bus stops in the township. ... Last year Colerain Township Police and staff implored Metro to stop the Bus 41 Cross Town Bus, which caused problems with loitering, arrests and other problems."

The letter was signed by township trustees Bernard Fiedelday, Jeffrey Ritter and Keith Corman.

SORTA began the Cross Town service about three years ago to allow riders more direct access to northern and eastern neighborhoods without having to first loop through downtown. Blaming Metro service for littering problems along the heavily populated, highly traveled Colerain Avenue is misguided, bus administrators say.

"It would be an impossibility for the transit system to be responsible for litter along Colerain Avenue," says Michael Setzer, SORTA's general manager. "We didn't bring it. Maybe our customers did, maybe they didn't. There's a lot of traffic through that area. Regardless, trash pickup is a municipal responsibility, not the transit system's."

The bus stops along Colerain Avenue were replacements, of a sort, for an actual stop in Northgate Mall's parking lot, which buses had used as a turn-around area for years. A few years ago the mall asked them to stop using the parking lot while a construction project was underway and never invited Metro back.

When Metro looked into the situation, it determined the true reason was the mall's owners pegged the bus system as the cause for problems with unruly juveniles there, Setzer says.

"It turned out we heard the mall was blaming us for security problems without any evidence," he says. "The mall is private property, so they can kick us out if they want."

In fact, Colerain Township trustees don't mind bus service that carries their residents elsewhere, only service that brings outsiders into their community. The trustees haven't lodged any complaints about Metro's Express service that carries workers into downtown Cincinnati during rush hours.

'A bad time'
Metro doesn't want to go where the service isn't wanted, Setzer says, but also wants to ensure that a vocal minority doesn't eliminate it for other residents who don't have transportation and rely on Metro.

In late August the city of Mason notified Metro that it wouldn't fund its share of 2007 bus service to Warren County, which totals about $33,000. Especially troubling to Metro is that Mason hadn't informed the agency earlier in the year and essentially got service provided free of charge for more than eight months.

Two bus routes travel through Mason. The first is Route 71X, an express service to take Warren County workers into downtown Cincinnati. Statistics show that route is used by an average of 225 people on weekdays. The other route is Route 72, which provides a "reverse commute" service from downtown to Kings Island, and has been used by young people who have jobs at the theme park.

It costs about $500,000 annually to operate the routes but after federal grants and bus fares are subtracted, only about $90,000 is needed from local sources. Warren County, Mason and Deerfield Township have split the cost in recent years.

"There was never any indication from any funding source that that was a problem," Setzer says. "To say that now is really unfair and isn't acting in good faith."

Mason officials told SORTA that Kings Island no longer wanted the route.

"Paramount wanted that bus service. Kings Island's new owners say they don't, and Mason is using that as a reason not to fund it," Setzer says.

Telephone calls to the Colerain Township administrator and Mason city manager seeking comment weren't returned.

SORTA is an independent agency, but about half of Metro's $84 million annual budget comes from a portion of Cincinnati's earnings tax. Hamilton County provides some money, mostly to subsidize service for disabled riders, with the remainder of the budget coming from state and federal grants.

Portune is proposing to revamp SORTA and allow other communities to join its governing board if they ante up funds to pay for the service. Colerain Township and Mason's actions don't affect that long-term vision, he says.

"It's inconsistent with the direction we'd like to go but I don't think it will hamper it," Portune says. "The (system's) build-out wouldn't come out of a centralized office but be based on the communities that want it and are willing to pay for it."

Not all suburbs dislike their Metro service. Bus routes traveling to Anderson Township and to Union Township, near Eastgate Mall, have proven popular with both residents and elected leaders, SORTA says.

Setzer endorses the push by Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials for a more regional funding model to keep Metro in business.

"I certainly agree this patchwork funding based on annual contracts isn't the way to get it done, precisely because of these situations," he says.

Noting the public's growing concerns about rising gasoline prices and global climate change due to greenhouse gases, Setzer adds, "It just seems like a bad time to decide we don't need transit service anymore." ©