Is a Plan to Fix Metro Finally Getting Ready to Roll Forward?

After a long stretch of uncertainty, various groups are coalescing to support a county sales tax levy to shore up Greater Cincinnati’s underfunded bus system

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click to enlarge A Route 43 bus pulls into Government Square downtown - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
A Route 43 bus pulls into Government Square downtown

It’s a hot mid-morning at Government Square, the central hub for Cincinnati’s Metro bus service, and riders are milling about waiting for their routes.

Many are like Marlon Tate — in the middle of hour or longer journeys involving transfers to get to work. Tate is waiting on Route 20 so he can get to his job in Fairfield.

“I’ll be on that bus for half an hour, depending on traffic,” he says. But that’s just part of the trip.

He starts his commute in the Western Hills area, where he catches the Route 33.

“That’s the first bus,” Tate says. “This is the second. That’s every day going to and from work.”

Waiting for a bus, riding the bus, waiting for another bus — the 20 only comes once an hour— riding the bus. It all adds up to a lot of time. Like Tate, a number of other riders face long waits for buses, commutes with transfers and other time-sapping situations. A new plan could help — if Hamilton County voters approve a sales tax levy to fund it next year. In the meantime, support is growing for the proposed improvements, collectively called Reinventing Metro, and Cincinnati City Council took a tentative first step toward getting the plan passed Aug. 7.

Among the possible improvements Reinventing Metro could bring, depending on the funding levels: more frequent routes, more crosstown routes to get people from one side of Greater Cincinnati to another, some 24-hour routes and dedicated lanes called Bus Rapid Transit for four routes along Cincinnati’s major traffic corridors.

Another rider near Tate who identified herself only as Ms. Doe is also waiting on the 20 on her way to Finneytown. Wearing a glittery hat and a floral shirt, she’s trying to get all of her daily errands done.

Doe moved away from the city three years ago and just moved back. She’s reacquainting herself with Metro, and had hoped more improvements had been made.

“They do need to expand the routes, so that people can go further out,” she said. “They do need to make the routes more frequent. I’ve been down here since 9:30 (a.m.). The buses run an hour apart. I may not get there until 11:30 a.m., then I have to ride the bus back. It takes a lot of time. It’s like I’m working, but I’m not.”

Metro isn’t necessarily lagging due to the way it operates. An audit commissioned by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber found that the bus service is efficient and uses money well.

Instead, the system's budget problems are structural. Most transit agencies fund their regional bus services via countywide levies, which cast a wider net and generally raise more money. Since the 1970s, however, Metro has relied on a portion of the city's earnings tax — a fairly uncommon arrangement.

The bus system faces a $5.8 million budget deficit this year and a $188 million shortfall over the next decade. And that’s just to keep the status quo. An independent report released by consultants AECOM in 2017 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.

Metro currently gets by on $100 million a year, much of it coming from a .3 percent tax assessed since 1973 on people who work in the city.

Metro's precarious financial situation hasn't been helped by state funding. Ohio's 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.

In the past, Metro has drawn from the system's contingency fund to bridge budget gaps. Last year, SORTA's board approved using $2.8 million from that fund. This year, however, only $3.8 million remains in the reserve. That money plus $900,000 in surplus funds from last year still leave the transit agency scraping for $1.1 million to make ends meet. 

Supporters of passing a county levy say the income tax doesn’t generate enough revenue and forces the city to subsidize service beyond the city limits.

Reinventing Metro would change that, and, advocates argue, substantively improve bus service if county voters approve a .7 percent or higher sales tax increase. At that level, the levy would raise about $110 million a year for bus service — double what the city’s earnings tax provides.

Over the past few years, various groups seemed at odds with what, exactly, to do about Metro’s problems. Former Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune, for example, opposed a county levy in favor of a more regional approach. And Metro’s board of directors punted on putting a levy ask on the ballot last year.

But now, support for the county levy seems to have coalesced. The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber backs the sales tax ask, as do the county commissioners and some prominent transit activists.

Pete Metz, the head of the chamber’s transportation initiatives, says the group representing some 4,000 regional businesses supports Reinventing Metro because the current funding system doesn’t allow Metro to provide transit services comparable to other cities with which Cincinnati is competing for talent and businesses.

“We have a public transportation system that is woefully underfunded and that doesn’t connect people to where they need to go today, let alone connect people to where they will need to go as we grow as a region,” Metz said at an Aug. 12 presentation on the plan for environmental advocates hosted by Green Umbrella. 

Cincinnati City Council took a first step toward the new funding model by agreeing to eliminate the portion of city income taxes that goes to Metro if county voters approve a levy.

There are still plenty of dominoes left to fall, but council's vote could prime the countywide sales tax levy to fund bus service.

Council member P.G. Sittenfeld introduced the proposal that, if approved by voters, would eliminate the .3 percent of the city's earnings tax that goes toward Metro's operations — but only in the event that Hamilton County voters approved a sales tax boost of .7 percent or above for funding Metro. 

Sittenfeld said the vote was the first step toward "multi-generational change" by vastly improving the region's bus system.

The charter amendment will go to city voters in next year's March primary election. Meanwhile, SORTA's board will also need to approve putting the sales tax levy — which would be anywhere from .7 to 1 percent above the county's current 7-percent sales tax — on a ballot in the spring or fall of 2020. Then county voters would need to approve that levy.

The income tax rollback is something of an olive branch for voters who may be skeptical of a tax increase — as is the potential inclusion of funds for road and bridge repair in the county tax levy ask. The infrastructure dollars would also have to in some way benefit transit services. That could push the overall sales tax hike to as high as 1 percent.

Overall, the city's income tax is 2.1 percent, meaning that eliminating Metro's portion would lower the city's earnings tax to 1.8 percent. That's easily the lowest of any major city in Ohio. 

The idea of eliminating Metro's share of the city's earnings tax has in the past sparked questions from transit advocates. Cincinnati's Better Bus Coalition, which has led successful grassroots campaigns for improving bus service, floated its own proposal to create a ballot initiative that would have raised the city's earnings tax if SORTA didn't act on a countywide levy.

Even with the possibility of a county levy, BBC President Cam Hardy had previously expressed concerns about eliminating the city's tax entirely because it would reduce the city's presence on SORTA's board and chip away at a revenue source for Metro.

But Hardy has since come on board with the county levy plan, saying it’s the best option for improving Metro.

“We are hitting a historic moment in our region when it comes to discussions about public transportation,” Hardy said at the Green Umbrella event. “The plan before us today changes the way (the system) is funded. Our earnings tax today isn’t bringing in enough money to fund our transportation system. I live in Northside. My aunt lives in Bond Hill. It shouldn’t take me an hour and a half to go see her.”

Not everyone is convinced eliminating Metro's portion of the city's earnings tax is a good idea. Council member Chris Seelbach voted against council’s proposed charter amendment, saying he supports better funding for bus service but doesn't think the city should give up a valuable revenue source. He was outvoted, however.

Now it will likely be up to city and county voters to decide the next moves.

Riders waiting at Government Square seemed to agree — something needs to be done.

“You know, I’m a patient person,” Tate says when asked about the possibility of more frequent service and more direct routes. “But oh yes, it would help. That I think would help everyone.”         

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