Hamilton County Transit and Road Tax Issue 7 Appears to Win Voter Approval -- But Results Are Too Close to Call

According to unofficial results released by the Hamilton County Board of Elections, the levy that will fund road improvement and a big revamp of the region's Metro bus service is up by roughly 600 votes

Apr 29, 2020 at 9:04 am
Hamilton County Transit and Road Tax Issue 7 Appears to Win Voter Approval -- But Results Are Too Close to Call
Nick Swartsell

A .8 percent sales tax increase that would go toward shoring up the region's Metro bus service and repairing roads and bridges is ahead by a razor-thin margin in primary election results.

Of the roughly 131,000 voters who cast ballots on the issue, some 65,943 voted to approve the levy by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, according to unofficial results released this morning by the Hamilton County Board of Elections. Almost as many — 65,318 — voted against it. An official tally will be released in mid-May. Some 4,280 provisional and 14,7236 absentee ballots that could swing the result must still be counted.

Ohio's primary election was originally supposed to wrap up with in-person voting March 17, but a last-minute order by Gov. Mike DeWine closing polls amid concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an extension of absentee voting until April 28.

The levy had a broad base of support from Cincinnati's business community, transit advocacy groups and city and county elected officials, including some conservatives like State Rep. Bill Seitz and Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes. But it also ran into opposition from conservative anti-tax activists.

Three-quarters of the estimated $130 million a year the 25-year the levy would raise would go to bus service, while another quarter would go to infrastructure improvements throughout the region that benefit public transit in some way. According to the ballot language the board approved, none of the money could be used for Cincinnati's streetcar.

Metro says it wants the money to fund an ambitious plan called Reinventing Metro to expand and improve bus service throughout Greater Cincinnati. The plan promises eight new bus routes to and from employment centers around the county; expanded hours and more frequent service on existing routes throughout the week and on weekends; 24-hour service along six major corridors; new transit centers; smaller circulator buses and crosstown routes; and better service for people with disabilities.

A nine-member board called the Hamilton County Integrating Committee would approve expenditure of the roughly $30 million collected for infrastructure under the proposed sales tax. Some of that money would almost certainly go to big projects like the Western Hills Viaduct, which is at the end of its lifespan.

Due to a citywide ballot issue voters okayed by a wide margin last year, the .3 percent portion of the city's earnings tax that pays for buses would be eliminated if the levy's victory is certified. That would mean those who work in Cincinnati would pay $50 million less in taxes and the city's income tax rate would go from 2.1 percent to 1.8 percent — the lowest of major cities in Ohio.

Since 1973, Metro has been funded by that .3 percent earnings tax, along with scant state contributions and some federal dollars. That's highly unusual — most large transit systems are funded by county taxpayers.

Metro currently gets by on $100 million a year. But the bus system badly needs more funding. It faced a $5.8 million budget deficit last year and needs many millions of dollars in investment to become better-functioning and connect more Greater Cincinnati residents to jobs.

Metro's precarious financial situation hasn't been helped by state funding. Ohio's state funding for public transit per capita is among the lowest in the country. Some help will likely be coming to Metro's budget via a 10.5-cent increase in the state's gas tax, however, which will generate roughly $70 million more for public transit every year. But that money will need to be divvied up among the state's 60 transit agencies.

Thousands of riders on SORTA’s Metro system 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. CityBeat spoke to some of those riders for an earlier story on Metro. Others face even longer commutes.

A University of Minnesota report last year ranked Cincinnati 39th in the country in terms of jobs accessible by public transit, even though the city ranks 26th in overall employment.