News: SORTA Less

Without fare hike, cuts already underway

Jon Hughes/

With Cincinnati City Council turning down a fare increase, Metro has begun trimming costs by cutting service hours at its call center and postponing the replacement of aging buses.

With Cincinnati City Council recently rejecting the Metro bus system's request for a fare increase, the mass transit agency that oversees the system is undergoing several changes behind the scenes that ultimately could affect service provided to the thousands of riders who use Metro every day.

The most immediate change will be the elimination of Metro's free park-and-ride service to Oktoberfest later this month. The service, which cost the agency about $11,000, was provided to the downtown festival from sites in Anderson Township, Blue Ash and Forest Park.

Also, Metro is reducing hours of operation at its downtown sales office and call centers, as well as delaying the replacement of some aging buses. Agency officials say service on some bus routes might eventually be reduced or cut altogether as early as next year, although no decision has yet been made.

Waiting to decide
The fare increase's rejection means Metro will have to make more cuts to grapple with a $35 million deficit in its capital budget over the next few years due to factors such as rising diesel fuel costs and dwindling state funding.

Bus replacement costs — at $20 million — are the largest portion of the deficit, and the fare increase was designed to help offset the deficit by $2 million while Metro sought additional savings elsewhere.

"This makes it much more difficult, and it postpones the replacing of equipment, particularly buses," says Michael Setzer, general manager of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), which operates Metro. "It deepens the hole we're already in with trying to keep our fleet current."

Each of Metro's standard buses costs roughly $350,000 and lasts an average of 12 years before constant daily usage makes repairs unfeasible and they must be replaced.

Six buses already are past due for replacement. Another 35 buses will need to be replaced in 2009, and 58 are scheduled for replacement in 2010.

"Essentially, city council postponed the issue (of replacement)," Setzer says. "That's something you can do for a while, but not indefinitely."

The Hamilton County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to publicly discuss SORTA's future at a meeting Monday. The commissioners have been privately conferring with city council for the past few months about whether to abolish SORTA and let some other agency assume control of the system.

Under the city of Cincinnati's 1973 deal with SORTA, which allows it to serve as the region's mass transit provider, a six-month notice is required to terminate the contract.

During the past few years some city council members have accused SORTA of having excessive administrative costs and reconfiguring bus service to favor suburban riders in outlying counties at the city's expense. As a result, they have periodically considered beginning the process to take away SORTA's funding and either allow private companies to submit bids for providing city bus service or give the responsibility to the Hamilton County Transportation Improvement District.

Since December, Metro had sought to raise fares on most routes by 25 cents, stating the jump was needed to replace aging buses. Despite Mayor Mark Mallory's support for the fare increase, city council voted 5-2 in June to reject it.

SORTA is an independent agency, but any fare increase requires city council's approval because about half of Metro's $84 million annual budget comes from a portion of the city's earnings tax. Also, Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials each appoint members to SORTA's board of trustees.

'Everything and anything'
County Commission President Todd Portune has worked with city councilmen John Cranley and Jeff Berding over the past several weeks to examine all options for the agency's future. A decision is expected soon.

While SORTA's fate is being decided, the agency also is dealing with turnover on its nine-member board of trustees. One trustee was replaced this month, and two more might be leaving in the near future due to political jockeying and personal feuds.

Roxanne Qualls, a former Cincinnati mayor who was appointed Sept. 4 to finish Jim Tarbell's term on city council, had been on SORTA's board. By jumping to council, Qualls had to leave the latter post. Council appointed Tarbell to take her spot there.

More changes are likely on SORTA's board. SORTA Trustee Robert Mecklenborg is the Republican Party's frontrunner to replace State Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Green Township) in the Ohio Legislature, say party sources. Mecklenborg would fill the vacancy created by Seitz's move to the Ohio Senate.

Lamont Taylor, who currently serves as SORTA's board chair, also will probably leave during the next year. Taylor's term has been expired for months, and Mallory wants to replace him.

Multiple sources say Mallory was upset by Taylor's role in pushing for an investigation last year of the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. (CEC). The investigation about how some federal grants were spent prompted city council to temporarily suspend funding to the CEC, and led the CEC to dump Dale Mallory — the mayor's brother — as a consultant. Dale Mallory ultimately had to return $225 of the money he was paid, creating a public embarrassment.

In the past few months, Mayor Mallory has asked at least two people to serve on the SORTA board as Taylor's replacement but each has refused, not wanting to step into the political maelstrom, sources say. Taylor also alienated some city council members while lobbying for the fare increase, making the odds for his continued service at SORTA shaky at best, sources add.

As the board's makeup changes, SORTA still must make cuts and balance its budget while city and county officials continue pondering how best to offer mass transit service.

"Everything and anything is possible for next year," Setzer says. ©

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