SORTA Board Will Vote on Hamilton County Bus Levy Monday

The sales tax increase that could land on the ballot next year would fund big improvements to the region's Metro bus service, officials say.

Sep 27, 2019 at 11:22 am
click to enlarge SORTA Board Will Vote on Hamilton County Bus Levy Monday
Nick Swartsell

The board of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority will hold a special meeting Sept. 30 to decide whether it will pursue a Hamilton County sales tax increase in 2020 to fund improvements to the region's Metro bus system.

The meeting will take place at 5 p.m. at Metro's downtown office at 602 Main St. 

The money from the tax increase would go to fund a plan called Reinventing Metro, which promises 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. 

The levy, which could range between .5 and 1 percent, has the backing of the Greater Cincinnati USA Chamber of Commerce, Hamilton County Commission and a number of city elected officials.

Since 1973, Metro has been funded by a .3-percent earnings tax levied by the city, 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. 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. 

But the bus system badly needs more funding. It faces a $5.8 million budget deficit this year and needs many millions of dollars in investment to become better-functioning and connect more Greater Cincinnati residents to jobs. 

SORTA's Reinventing Metro plan could substantively improve bus service if voters approve a .7-percent or higher sales tax increase. In the meantime, the bus system is in a tough spot.

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. Those riders include people like Whitney Harmon, whom CityBeat spoke to for an earlier story on Metro. Harmon rides the bus an hour each way from her home in Winton Terrace to her job as a cook downtown. 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. The Cleveland metro area, by contrast, ranked 29th for transit accessibility, even though it ranked lower than Cincinnati (28th) for overall jobs. The Columbus metro area came in 25th for accessibility to jobs via transit, though it ranks 31st for overall employment.

Other peer cities like St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky also fare better in the rankings for overall accessibility, though Cincinnati did better than Nashville and Kansas City.

Of the Cincinnati metropolitan area’s 1,018,914 jobs, just 365 are accessible by transit within 10 minutes, according to the report. Another 2,157 are accessible within 20 minutes. Those numbers are lower than Ohio’s other big cities, and the gap gets even bigger for jobs accessible within 40 to 60 minutes. Both Columbus and Cleveland have more than 74,500 jobs reachable by transit in that time. Despite having more jobs overall, the Cincinnati metropolitan area has just 48,793 jobs you can reach via public transit in an hour.

After years of uncertainty about the financial state of Metro, Cincinnati City Council last month took a first step toward the new funding model by pledging to eliminate the portion of the city's earnings tax that goes to Metro should a countywide levy pass. City voters will need to approve that change to the city's charter.

Any levy ask SORTA makes will likely come with some money for roads as well — something seen as a political olive branch for some county voters who don't rely on the bus service. SORTA must decide to pursue the levy at least 90 days before it is to appear on the coming March 17 or Nov. 3, 2020 ballots.