Hamilton County voters decide Nov. 5 whether to begin the largest local transportation project since the interstate highway system.
What began in 2000 as a plan to revamp Queen City Metro, the city's bus system, has grown into MetroMoves, a comprehensive, 30-year vision for the Tristate's public transportation network.
MetroMoves is a $4.2 billion plan to add six light rail lines, two streetcar lines, 20 neighborhood shuttle buses and 30 bus transfer centers. The project would upgrade Queen City Metro from a downtown-centered system into a countywide, cross-town network.
The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), which runs Queen City Metro, voted Aug. 20 to put a half-cent sales tax on the ballot. It is the first sales tax on the ballot the since May 1996, when voters approved a half-cent increase for new football and baseball stadiums.
The tax hike would raise about $60 million a year; Hamilton County residents pay about 55 percent of county sales taxes, according to Metro spokesperson Sallie Hilvers. Using that figure, the tax increase would annually cost $39.50 per resident.
Pay now or get in line
SORTA put all this to a November vote because it could be the last chance for a few years to get the federal government to pay 50 percent of the light rail plan's construction costs. The law providing federal transit funding ends its five-year life span next year. Congress is expected to re-authorize funding; but without a local funding source this year, SORTA could wait five years longer to get in the funding cycle.
The state of Ohio is expected to chip in another 25 percent.
The sales tax will pay for only the $2.74 billion Hamilton County portion of MetroMoves. Commuter rail lines connecting Lawrenceburg, Milford, Hamilton and Middletown to downtown Cincinnati are a possibility, but surrounding counties would be responsible for raising the $1.02 billion to pay for it.
SORTA's nine-member board is taking a chance by putting all the bus and rail projects together into MetroMoves for one up-or-down vote. It's asking Hamilton County voters for a great deal of trust, something in short supply since the inept county management of the Paul Brown Stadium project expanded its cost by $52 million.
MetroMoves still calls for at least 100 new buses and 30 bus transfer hubs, including some compatible with light rail. The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) began studying a light rail line along Interstate 71 in 1995 and finished a detailed corridor study in 1997. OKI is in charge of coordinating transportation spending in the eight-county Tristate region.
SORTA and OKI realized last year that selling county voters on an I-71 line rail line alone — especially those in Western Hamilton County — would be tough. So earlier this year they combined efforts for a regional plan with light rail, commuter rail and two streetcar lines. The plan is now part of MetroMoves. For some, this is where SORTA made a wrong turn.
"This is an enormous opening of the pubic trough," says Stephan Louis, chair of Alternatives to Light Rail Transit (ALRT), a group opposed to the plan.
Louis could understand expanding the bus system. He likes the job Queen City Metro General Manager Paul Jablonski is doing.
"I think that Jablonski is doing the best that he can do with the funds he has," Louis says.
But he opposes spending billions on light rail. Louis foresees a system that won't attract enough people to justify the expense; SORTA's estimate is 115,000 riders a day for a $3.74 billion network. OKI estimates it will cost $15.50 per light rail ride along the I-71 line.
Beyond the romance
Louis sees light rail lines in Seattle, St, Louis and Los Angeles that ran hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. To be fair, however, those are only three of the more than 40 rail projects built, underway or planned in the United States.
Louis is also concerned about the long-term operating cost of the light rail lines — $82 million a year, by SORTA's estimate. That's more than double SORTA's operating budget today.
"We need to get past the romance of (trains)," Louis says.
What might disturb Louis most about MetroMoves is that SORTA — whose nine board members do not face direct election — is asking voters to trust them with a never-ending stream of sales tax dollars. Although SORTA estimates the rail projects will cost $4.2 billion, they've only finished preliminary engineering — and therefore detailed cost estimates — on the full $1.8 billion I-71 line.
"It becomes very difficult for the voters to be able to control the costs of the projects once they're approved," Louis says.
Everyone likes trains, according to Louis. But their time has passed, and the Tristate needs a more flexible transit system, he says. Metro leaders say that's exactly what they're trying to provide.
Although Louis is convinced OKI and SORTA always wanted light rail, that wasn't the case when the agency studied high-traffic routes for MetroMoves, according to Tim Reynolds, director of strategic Planning for Queen City Metro.
"SORTA was by no means predisposed to light rail during those corridor studies," he says.
With highways and roads, all it takes is one accident to tie up the system. Light rail can move more people more reliably than buses can, Reynolds says.
Light rail could actually save the Tristate money in the long run.
SORTA hired HLB Decision Economics of Silver Spring, Md. for an economic impact study of the six-line light rail network. HLB conducted a three-day, door-to-door, travel time study based on 175 trips around the different light rail corridors, comparing the times to SORTA's estimated times for light rail.
HLB found that by 2030, light rail lines could save the Tristate $85.1 million in gas, lost working time and other expenses related to congested roads. In 2000 the Tristate lost more than $500 million to these expenses, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.
Factor in new development attracted by light rail, more than 36,000 new jobs and the 300,000 jobs with access to mass transit and the total economic benefits of light rail exceed their costs by 8.5 percent, HLB found.
When Louis criticizes the cost of buses and cars, he forgets to factor in the billions spent to build and maintain the road network. Then there's the cost of gas, insurance and traffic deaths.
But if there's one thing that distinguishes light rail from buses, it's that it makes higher density development possible. With a good light rail network, pedestrians could access much more of Greater Cincinnati than they can now, with less worry about finding parking.
"The community really needs more than just the 40-foot bus to handle the transportation needs of the Tristate," Hilvers says.
MetroMoves by the Numbers
$60 million: annual revenue a half-cent sales tax increase would raise in Hamilton County
$39.50: Average cost per county resident for the tax hike
$2.74 billion: Estimated construction cost of the six proposed MetroMoves light rail lines in Hamilton County
60: track miles in Hamilton County if all six lines are built
100,000: Estimated daily ridership on all six lines in Hamilton County
$830 million: Estimated construction cost for 20 miles of the Interstate 71 light rail line from downtown to Blue Ash
$1.8 billion: Estimated construction cost of the full, 44-mile I-71 line from Mason to Florence, Ky. and the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport
34,000: Estimated daily ridership on that line
$252 million: Estimated construction cost of two streetcar lines connecting Northern Kentucky, downtown, Corryville and Walnut Hills
12,000: Estimated daily ridership on those lines
483: Number of buses Metro owns
584: Number of buses Metro would own if MetroMoves were implemented
$112 million: Estimated total capital cost of the MetroMoves bus expansion plan
30: Estimated number of neighborhood bus hubs to be built in MetroMoves
$72.2 million: Queen City Metro's estimated 2002 operating costs
2005: The year the streetcar lines would open
2012: The year the bus expansion plan would be completed
2031: The year the last of six light rail lines might open
SOURCES: Southwestern Ohio Regional Transit Authority, HLB Decision Economics of Silver Spring, Md. For more information about MetroMoves, visit www.MetroMoves.com. For more information about ALRT, visit www.alrt1.homestead.com.