Could this proposal help low-income Cincinnati bus riders facing potential fare increases?

A plan that could come before Cincinnati City Council soon would offer low-income residents free or reduced bus passes for school, work and other necessary trips.

click to enlarge Metro buses at Government Square downtown - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Metro buses at Government Square downtown

It's no secret: the city's Metro bus system needs big changes. But some of those shifts, including higher fares in the coming years, could be hard for low-income residents who need the bus to get to work, school or the grocery store.

Cincinnati City Council will soon mull a plan to set aside $300,000 a year for the next three years to help some of Metro's most vulnerable riders better afford transit options. Called the Transit Empowerment Fund, the proposal could be a way to blunt the impact of potential fare increases for the region’s Metro bus system.

The idea, recommended by the Human Services Chamber of Hamilton County, would make Metro fare cards — single-ride, daily passes or monthly passes — from the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority available to social service organizations at a 50 percent discount. Those organizations could then turn around and distribute them free or at a reduced rate to residents making less than 200 percent of the federally-defined poverty guidelines for income. The passes would be for people going to and from work, medical appointments, court, the grocery or other necessary destinations. An advisory board made up of bus riders, SORTA staff, human services professionals and members of the business community would oversee the initiative.The plan has at least one somewhat controversial clause — the possibility that ride-booking companies like Uber could be included in future years.

Cities like Austin, Texas, Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle have launched similar fare discount programs.

The suggestion, now a motion submitted by Cincinnati City Councilman David Mann, comes after the Chamber released a survey of bus riders last month showing that many would not be able to afford fare increases proposed in SORTA’s recently-released Reinventing Metro plan. That plan, designed to stave off looming multi-million dollar deficits for the bus system, would raise fares from $1.75 to $2.80 over the next decade — a 60 percent increase.

About half of the 700 riders surveyed make less than $25,000 a year. Of those riders, more than 50 percent said they would not be able to continue riding the bus if fares increased by 50 cents. Sixty-five percent said they would not be able to afford a fare hike of $1.

The survey paints a broader picture of riders beyond their ability to afford fare increases. Sixty percent of those surveyed ride the bus more than four times a week, and nearly as many ride it to school or work. Of those particular riders, the vast majority — 84 percent — do not own a car.

Mann’s motion would pull the $300,000 a year necessary to fund the Chamber’s recommendation from the city’s Transit Tax Fund, part of the city’s earnings tax. With that money, the Chamber estimates about 1,400 riders could benefit from the free or reduced fare cards.

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