Can any of this year’s mayoral candidates actually address Metro’s troubles?

Improving the city’s Metro service has become a major talking point during the city’s 2017 mayoral election. Studies suggest it will take more than $1 billion.

Mar 8, 2017 at 10:06 am

click to enlarge Can any of this year’s mayoral candidates actually address Metro’s troubles?
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Wearing her pink chef’s hat and neatly pressed kitchen uniform, Whitney Harmon rides the Route 43 Metro bus for an hour almost every day as it snakes its way from Winton Hills, where she lives, toward downtown, where she works as a cook.

As the sun comes up, her bus picks up riders and passes lines of public housing in Winton Terrace, the green turf of Roger Bacon High School’s football field on Mitchell Avenue, the Abraham Lincoln statue on Reading Road in Avondale and the Horseshoe Casino on Central Parkway before making its way to Government Square, the city’s central transit hub.

“The bus where I live doesn’t run that often,” Harmon says. The 43 comes once every 40 minutes; her backup bus, Route 20, once an hour. Sometimes, the bus doesn’t show up on time, leaving her waiting in the cold and scrambling to get to work. “I wish they would come more often. I have to time it just right, and sometimes it’s late.”

Thousands like Harmon face long, convoluted commutes, some riding for more than an hour and taking transfers to get from one Cincinnati neighborhood to another just a few miles away (see “Long Wait,” issue of Nov. 18, 2015). 

The challenges facing the city’s bus service have become a major talking point in Cincinnati’s 2017 mayoral race. Incumbent Mayor John Cranley, Cincinnati City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson and former University of Cincinnati Board Chair Rob Richardson Jr. are wrangling over who will best serve Cincinnatians depending on public transit in the run up to the city’s May 2 primary. But can any of the three make a big difference in the region’s bus woes?

During his re-election campaign launch Feb. 21, Cranley endorsed a potential 0.5 percent countywide sales tax increase the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority could put before voters in November. That money could be used to boost bus service throughout the city.

“Our region is far behind our peers in making bus transit a real option for most people who are trying to get to and from their jobs,” he said at his campaign kick-off in Price Hill.

Simpson and Richardson say they have bigger visions — different in their details but both recalling an ambitious regional transit plan voters torpedoed 15 years ago.

Cranley has tied both his opponents to the streetcar and claimed that either would boost spending for that project over bus service for the whole region. Richardson and Simpson have come out in support of expanding streetcar service into uptown in the past but have placed a greater emphasis on bus service in the neighborhoods in their mayoral campaigns. 

Simpson called public transit the “civil rights issue of our time” in a recent public forum between the three candidates in Avondale. She has advocated moving away from the hub-and-spoke system that Metro currently employs, in which all buses converge downtown, in favor of a system that better connects neighborhoods across the city.

“It takes two hours to get from Walnut Hills to Mount Airy on a bus,” she said at the Feb. 28 forum. 

Simpson and Richardson have called for expanding bus service and reviving a region-wide effort that might someday look like MetroMoves, which in 2002 sought a 0.5 percent countywide sales tax increase to build out Greater Cincinnati’s transit system over three decades. Perhaps scared by the project’s overall $2.6 billion price tag, 68 percent of voters said no to that plan. 

Will more voters be ready now, or in the near future? It’s unclear.

Richardson has pointed out that Cranley didn’t support MetroMoves when he was a Councilman. He says that’s a sign that he’s posturing now in his support for public transit. 

“You can look it up,” Richardson told attendees at the candidate forum in Avondale. “He’s always been against transit.”

Cranley’s more moderate plan, which hinges on the current transit tax passing, would have mixed implications for bus funding. While he endorses a countywide sales tax, he has also proposed cutting two-thirds of the portion of the city earnings tax that currently funds the transit system and diverting the remaining third to road and other infrastructure spending.

As the candidates battle, data suggests fixing the situation facing Metro will be very challenging. A January study by AECOM Consultants, which was hired by SORTA, found that the system needs between $1 billion and $1.5 billion in improvements over the next decade to be effective. 

That’s more than the proposed 0.5 percent countywide sales tax hike would raise. In fact, it would take a 0.75 percent tax raise to get the necessary money — a proposition that has dubious political prospects.

Hamilton County’s current sales tax rate, 7 percent, is on the low end for counties in the state. But a tax hike sufficient to make the necessary improvements to the bus system would take the county up to 7.75 percent. Only Cuyahoga County’s 8 percent sales tax rate would be higher in Ohio.

SORTA has yet to formally declare it is placing the tax increase on the ballot. It can present up to a 1 percent sales tax increase without approval from Hamilton County Commissioners. The county currently doesn’t have a dedicated transit tax, though Cuyahoga, Franklin and six other Ohio counties do. 

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, a Democrat, advised SORTA late last year not to put even the 0.5 percent tax hike on the 2017 ballot, saying it’s “the wrong time” to ask voters for more money.

Metro has already begun making cuts to administrative staff and is staring down a $170 million deficit over the next decade if its funding doesn’t change. Meanwhile, it’s struggling to serve the region’s workers.

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.

“SORTA is at a crossroads, and we’re nearing the time when we need to decide which path to take,” Jason Dunn, SORTA Board Chair, said at a Jan. 17 SORTA board meeting. “Either way, we are reinventing Metro — for the better with more service and amenities, or for worse with decreased access to jobs, school and health care.”

Even though Cranley, Richardson and Simpson have made improving transit a main part of their campaigns, key portions of the funding puzzle are beyond a mayor’s control. It will be up to county voters to approve any sales tax hike, and the state doesn’t look likely to pitch in much. 

In the last two decades, state lawmakers have cut spending on public transit in half, and the Ohio House of Representatives on March 5 passed an $8 billion transportation bill that doesn’t boost that funding much. The state may spend $10 million more on public transit systems across the state, if the bill passes — a drop in the bucket compared to Metro's needs.

In 2015, Ohio, the nation’s seventh-most populous state, spent just 63 cents per person on public transit, making it one of the most tight-fisted in the country. In contrast, every other of the nation’s 10 most-populous states spent at least $50 per person on public transit.

As officials look for solutions to Metro’s mounting woes, the situation is especially tough in neighborhoods like Harmon’s. Winton Hills has a median household income of just $12,000 a year, and many other outer-ring neighborhoods on the 43 and similar routes are also places where more residents are likely to have low incomes and not own their own vehicles. ©