Transit advocates with the Better Bus Coalition say they will pursue an amendment to Cincinnati's charter that would boost the amount the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority gets for its Metro bus service from the city's earnings tax.
The amendment would boost the portion of the city's income tax that pays for Metro from 0.3 percent to 0.5 percent. That money could only be used on Metro — not the streetcar — under the proposed amendment. The current 0.3 percent tax generates about $55 million a year for SORTA. Metro would get between $80 million to $90 million under the tax boost, depending upon how steady the city's income tax receipts stay.
BBC President Cam Hardy says the group wants to put the amendment before voters in November this year, and will be hiring organizers to do door knocking and help collect the more than 6,000 signatures needed to get the amendment on the ballot.
The push comes after SORTA's Board of Directors opted last year not to pursue a Hamilton County sales tax levy that would have created a county-wide revenue source for bus service. Proceeds from Cincinnati's earnings tax have provided most of the money to operate Metro since 1973, an unusual arrangement for a major city.
"The Better Bus Coalition is frustrated with the outright lies that have come from the SORTA Board," Hardy said today via an email. "For at least 8 years they have been punting this issue, leaving bus riders to have to deal with a very inadequate system. We recognize that the problem is bigger than Cincinnati, but while City Hall, the county and the unions fight, we will lead the charge in asking Cincinnati residents to tax themselves a little more so we can have 24 hour bus service, 15 minute frequencies on most routes and more importantly the budget shortfall will be filled. As a bus rider myself, I think it's important that this issue goes to the taxpayers and then we can let them decide. We have been dictated to long enough when it comes to this issue. We will be heard."
The group estimates that the increase would cost a person in Cincinnati making $40,000 a year — slightly above the city's median income — roughly an additional $6.67 a month. Currently, those who work in Cincinnati pay 2.1 percent for the city's overall earnings tax — the city's main revenue source.
Beside the city's earnings tax, the bulk of the rest of the money Metro uses comes from bus fares ($18.9 million in 2017) and federal sources ($11.5 million). Ohio ranks 45th among states when it comes to public dollars per capita spent on transit, even though it ranks 14th in ridership. In 2015, Ohio, the nation’s seventh-most populous state, spent just 63 cents per person on public transit. In contrast, every other one of the nation’s 10 most-populous states spent dollars, not cents, per person. In 2017, for example, SORTA got just $800,000 from the state of Ohio.
SORTA, which faces a roughly $184 million deficit in coming years that could result in continued fare hikes or service reductions, could opt to put the Hamilton County tax levy on either the May 7 or Nov. 5 ballot this year. A levy at the .9 percent level could fund major improvements like bus rapid transit lines, 24-hour service on major lines, increased bus frequency and new routes. If county voters approved a levy at that level, BBC's proposed city charter amendment stipulates that the city's earnings tax dedicated to Metro would decrease to .1 percent.
However, the likelihood that the board will vote to put a levy on the May 7 primary election ballot is diminishing. It didn't vote to do so at its monthly meeting Jan. 15, and its next meeting, Feb. 19, is after the Feb. 6 Hamilton County Board of Election's deadline for ballot issues for the primary. The board could call a special session to vote on a May levy before that deadline, opt to wait until November to put the levy on the ballot, or not do so at all. The deadline for a November levy is Aug. 7.
The BBC says the funding, wherever it comes from, is badly needed.
Transit accessibility to jobs increased in Cincinnati by 6.78 percent in 2017, according to a report by the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory. But that improvement is just a start for a region where most jobs aren’t accessible by public transit at all.
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 in 2017 for a 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.
Of the Cincinnati metropolitan area’s 1,018,914 jobs, just 2,157 are accessible within 20 minutes, according to the Accessibility Observatory's report. 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.