Changemakers: Metro's story is Greater Cincinnati's story

CINCINNATI – The region’s largest public bus service has a very serious story to be told.

One place to start that tale is here: Metro – which provides nearly 17 million rides a year – is facing, as early as next year, massive budget shortfalls in excess of $20 million. 

In part, that’s because of dwindling pots of money from federal and state programs. It’s also because of flat and declining ridership. 

One way to get more money is to get more people riding the bus. Metro leaders say that could happen if the bus service went more places – say, to key parts in the region where jobs are plentiful and businesses are growing.

“It really is about connecting people to jobs, and more importantly keeping up with the changing demographics so that we’re able to connect people to jobs that are leaving the Downtown core,” said Jason Dunn, president of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) – the board that oversees Metro.

But expanding bus service takes more money – something Metro doesn’t have. And unless something  changes, cuts to bus service are likely as Metro faces looming deficits.

Where the story goes next is largely in of the hands of leaders like Dunn and his peers on the SORTA board.

In recent weeks, the board voted unanimously to prepare for a possible ballot issue in 2017 to ask Hamilton County voters to consider a sales tax to support expanded bus service.

Doing so will require a considerable campaign to convince the county’s elected officials, business leaders and ultimately voters that our region can’t compete unless we have robust bus service.

Behind every good campaign is a good story, Dunn said.

“Now we’re tasked with building the narrative for why this is so important,” he said

Over the last two years, SORTA and Metro have taken on a series of research studies, hired consultants and created committees to better understand the challenges the bus service faces and how they might be addressed.

Among the results:

  • A 2015 study by the University of Cincinnati Economics Center found that Metro is the most efficiently run transit system out of its peer cities (which include Cleveland and Kansas City, among others).  
  • That same study found that more than 75,000 jobs are not easily accessible by Metro.
  • A six-month deep dive by the Metro Futures Task Force into bus systems operations found that the bus system is “an important factor in regional talent attraction and retention and… for the overall competitiveness of our region.”
  • Still, the same study concluded that the system’s “business model is not sustainable at current funding levels.” Metro is funded largely by 0.3 percent city of Cincinnati earnings tax which yields roughly $50 million annually for operations.
  • Results from a February public opinion survey revealed that 92.2 percent of respondents agreed that providing transportation to seniors, students, workers and people without cars is essential to the economy and the basic quality of life, even if they don’t use public transit personally.
  • The same survey found that 54.7 percent think a sales tax is the best way to fund public transit improvements and upgrades.

It’s these points and more that are top of mind as SORTA’s leaders consider the story they’re preparing to tell our region.

“We have to have a real discussion with the community, with elected officials, with faith leaders and business leaders about the options,” Dunn said. “We have to break down the economic return, and lay out what our ask of the community would mean.”

More than that, Dunn says, the story to be told isn’t just about what’s next for Metro. It’s about Greater Cincinnati’s future.

“Public transportation is a vital part of the region’s lifeline,” he said. “We have to take it seriously, and if we don’t, I don’t know how we grow.”

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