Activists push SORTA on tax levy amid turbulence at the transit agency

Transit activists and bus riders are pushing hard for a tax boost to improve service for the region's Metro bus system

The small conference room in downtown Cincinnati where the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority holds its board meetings was standing room only as bus riders and transit activists piled in Feb. 20.

They’d come to push the board to ask voters for a sales tax levy in November so that the city’s Metro bus system — which faces big coming deficits, a shortage of drivers, more than 100 aging buses and other challenges — can be shored up and expanded.

Normally, their requests would be preaching to the choir. After all, the board voted to go forward with a sales tax boost, amount to be determined, last year. But recent events have thrown some uncertainty into the mix.

Last month Hamilton County Commission, led by tax levy opponent Democrat Todd Portune, appointed six new board members to SORTA’s governing body, and more new city appointees are on the way. Meanwhile, SORTA’s new board must navigate new scrutiny around its finances as well as tension between the transit agency’s management and its union.

Activists with the Better Bus Coalition and other groups are keeping the pressure on the newcomers and say the time is now to greatly increase Metro’s spending. The bus service faces huge coming budget deficits, and could face service reductions without more revenue even as studies show it doesn’t connect residents to many of the region’s jobs currently.

“We must improve this system with everyone in mind,” Coalition member Mark Samaan told the board. “Let’s focus on the core of our service — people who currently ride and people who used to ride but now cannot because the service no longer works for them, people who would see major life and financial benefit from expanded bus services. I ask you to respect the voters and ask them to make a decision this November on a sales tax levy.”

Transit advocates have framed the levy as a solution to a tough set of realities for Metro: Cincinnati is in an especially tight-fisted state when it comes to transit, and the region’s transit authority is one of just a few that doesn’t rely on funds from the county around it.

Ohio ranks among the lowest spenders of public dollars per capita on transit. In 2015, Ohio, the nation’s seventh-most populous state, spent just 63 cents per person on public transit. In contrast, every other one of the nation’s 10 most-populous states spends dollars, not cents, per capita. Making the situation more difficult, Hamilton County hasn't paid for transit since the city's earnings tax was tapped to fund buses in 1973, though Cuyahoga, Franklin and six other Ohio counties pitch in for their transit authorities.

“Unfortunately, in the state of Ohio and in this region, transit is woefully underfunded,” said Sierra Club Ohio Transportation Policy Coordinator Nathan Alley. “We need to do something to fix that. Generally, we don’t like sales taxes. We believe they’re regressive. However in this instance we need something in the short term and we need it now. That seems to be our best bet. We’re fully in support of the idea of a regional compact to address public transportation on a multi-county and multi-state level. But building such a system will take time, and in the interim, this system might fail.”

Metro faces a $150 million budget deficit over the next decade — and that money is needed just to keep bus service at status quo. An independent report released by consultants AECOM last year found Metro would need at least $1 billion in upgrades over the next 10 years to make it more functional and get more county residents to the region’s jobs.

In addition to a potential tax levy, SORTA's board is mulling raising Metro fares by 15 cents to $1.90 per ride. That fare increase would take place in June next year and would be the first since 2009. Cincinnati City Council would need to approve that hike, something some council members have balked at. Metro has also reduced or eliminated several routes, and could do so again in the future.

That’s going in the wrong direction, transit advocates say. A 2015 study of Metro’s reach commissioned by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, the Urban Land Institute and other organizations found that only 23 percent of jobs in the city are easily reachable by public transit. Many others take more than 90 minutes to reach by bus. And about 40 percent of jobs in the city — some 75,000 — aren’t reachable by transit at all. All told, the city ranks lower than 11 other peer cities when it comes to job accessibility via public transit, including regional neighbors Louisville, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Columbus and Pittsburgh, as well as cities like Denver and Austin, Texas.

The financial strains have caused tensions within SORTA. Trustees Feb. 20 voted to approve mediation between the president of the city’s chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Troy Miller, and the general manager of the city’s Metro bus service, Dwight Ferrell, over ongoing issues.

“We’re trying to come up with a solution that brings the relationship between administration and the union so they both agree,” board member Maurice Brown told attendees at SORTA’s board meeting. The board has tapped the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to do that mediation, and a first session was scheduled for Feb. 26. “They’ll put together a program, or several, to begin repairing and then healing, in a sense, the relationship between management and the union.”

Miller says that a shortage of drivers and aging buses are causing low morale and driver fatigue, and that Metro leadership is wasting money via high employee turnover. But SORTA CEO Dwight Ferrell disputes that the bus service is wasting funds and cites Metro’s looming budget deficits, which he says are caused by increasing costs and lack of state and other funding.

SORTA’s previous board in 2017 voted to put a sales tax levy on this year’s Hamilton County ballot to improve Metro’s funding. The amount of that levy has yet to be decided but could range between .5 and 1 percent — the most it can ask voters for without approval from the Hamilton County Commission. At the higher ends of that tax increase, Metro says users could expect vastly improved bus service, with more frequency on key routes, longer operating hours and even bus rapid transit in the city’s core.

Then, earlier this month, Hamilton County Commissioners replaced six members of the 13-member board (the City of Cincinnati appoints the other seven) after their terms expired. There are some concerns that the new board won’t be as amenable to the tax levy — Portune, who picked the appointees, has asked SORTA to reconsider its ask as he works on a plan to establish a larger regional transit system encompassing eight counties municipalities in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

Fellow Democrat commissioner Denise Driehaus says that opposition to the tax levy wasn’t a condition for her vote for new appointees Blake Ethridge, Robert Harris, Thaddeus Hoffmeister, Allen Freeman, Pete McLinden and Kathleen Wyenandt.

The tax levy debate comes as SORTA’s financial house has received more scrutiny of late. Earlier this month, the transit authority revealed that an audit found an extra $8 million tucked away in its bank account that wasn’t committed to other uses. SORTA put $4 million of that money in reserves and used the rest to activate $11 million in federal matching funds to purchase replacements for 20 aging buses.

The transit agency’s finances will get still more attention in the months before the potential ballot initiative. SORTA several months ago asked the Cincinnati Business Committee to do an audit of its finances. The CBC, made up of executives from the city’s biggest companies like General Electric and Procter & Gamble, has hired accountancy giant Ernst and Young to perform that four-month audit that will dive into SORTA’s expenditures and revenue sources.

“We’re thrilled to do it,” Board Chair Kreg Keesee said. “This has been in the works for several months and isn’t a reaction to anything that has happened recently. It’s going to be an important step toward moving forward with this discussion around a future funding model. We know our current model is somewhat unsustainable. It’s critical to make sure our house is in order.”


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