With No SORTA Levy, What's Next For Bus Service?

A sales tax levy could come in May next year. Meanwhile, activists angered by the SORTA board's inaction have plans of their own.

click to enlarge A bus at Government Square in downtown Cincinnati - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
A bus at Government Square in downtown Cincinnati

Today was supposed to be the day that the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority voted on a Hamilton County sales tax levy.

Had voters approved it on the November ballot, the tax would have shored up the region’s struggling bus service and plugged a $184 million deficit over the next decade for the transit agency.

But the vote to ask taxpayers for the money isn’t coming. Instead, at the board’s meeting this morning, age-old fissures between Cincinnati and Hamilton County presented themselves — as did clues about what will happen next.

SORTA Board Chair Kreg Keesee cited a tough political climate for a tax levy and lack of agreement and buy-in from board members and other stakeholders.  

He says the board could ask for a levy as soon as May next year, likely starting at the .7 percent level that would fund increased bus routes, service frequency and 24-hour service on certain routes. That’s the amount stipulated in a now-abandoned plan that also included .3 percent for road repairs designed to entice county voters.

“We cannot be cavalier about the current financial situation,” Keesee said. “The capital operating deficits are real, and we’ll feel the impacts of those deficits even greater in the next year.”

Keesee says a committee he will chair including board members Blake Ethridge, Mary Miller, Robert Harris and Rod Hinton will work on the future initiative. Ethridge and Harris are county appointees, while Miller and Hinton were appointed by the city.

The board was divided, largely between city and county appointees, on whether it was taking the right course.  The city pays for bus service through a .3 percent earnings tax, an unusual mechanism that has existed since 1973 that is widely thought to be unsustainable at its current levels. The county does not contribute financially to the system, though a number of routes extend outside Cincinnati’s city limits.

“The county has done nothing but take from the city,” city-appointed board member Heidi Black said. “If they want to help, they need to put their money where their mouth is.”

Other city appointees expressed support for the levy ask.

But county appointee Peter McLinden said the political climate is too fraught to ask county voters for the money now. He noted that SORTA should have a better consensus about what it is asking for and a broader coalition of groups behind it before asking for a sales tax levy.

“We need Preschool Promise on steroids,” he said, referring to a successful tax levy to support expanded preschool opportunities for Cincinnati Public Schools that district voters overwhelmingly passed in 2016.

City-appointed board member Brendon Cull, however, said SORTA already had a good plan in front of it. He implied some of the division on the board came from opposition from Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune, a Democrat who is an outspoken opponent of the levy ask. Portune would like to see a more regional approach to transit upgrades involving eight counties in three states.

“We’re not here to represent one elected official who happened to appoint us,” Cull said, seemingly taking a swipe at county appointees opposed to the levy ask and Portune.

Transit activists and others reacted strongly to the board’s decision. Better Bus Coalition President Cam Hardy, long a presence at SORTA board meetings, said he felt “extremely disrespected as a bus rider” and said the group is working on its own plan centering around raising the city’s earnings tax and focusing on service inside the city limits.

“I don’t believe for one minute that you’re going to go to the ballot next year,” Hardy said. “Last year you said the same thing last year about this year. We want the bus service to be city-centric. It’s obvious that there is no consensus around a county-wide solution, although that’s the best solution. We won’t accept any service cuts to city routes. If you’re going to cut service, it needs start with express service into the county. If you’re going to raise fares, raise it in the county. It’s unacceptable that we would have to pay more for less.”

Former Cincinnati City Council member and SORTA board member Jim Tarbell also made remarks supporting a “significant” boost to the city’s earnings tax to pay for bus service, highlighting a similar move by Columbus’ transit agency.

The underlying question remains: without a levy on the ballot, how will SORTA address a $38.4 million shortfall next year? A report last month from Ernst & Young found few inefficiencies or opportunities for easy money saving in SORTA’s operations. Many worry that the already-lean Metro bus service will have to be pared back with cuts to routes, fare increases, or both.

Keesee said those measures were the board’s “last resort” for closing funding gaps. But should they come, they could hit low-income riders especially hard.

Gina Marsh of the Human Services Chamber of Hamilton County said a third of 700 clients it surveyed said they could not afford a 25 cent fare increase. Two-thirds said bus was their sole means of transportation.

Riders aren’t the only ones who could feel the pinch. SORTA union president Troy Miller says union’s employees are worried about layoffs from possible service reductions.

“This afternoon I got nine new employees starting orientation,” he said. “I’m going to have to hand them this news release and tell them that most likely, they’ll be laid off. What are service cuts? Layoffs.”

Keesee, however, said the push for funding isn’t over.

"We have a unique opportunity to do something big for the region," he said. "I do want to double down on our efforts."

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