I-Team: Facing budget woes, Metro bus service could need re-routing to keep system afloat

CINCINNATI -- Head to Government Square Area F at the corner of Main and Fifth streets and hop on the Metro 28 route, toward East End, Mariemont and Milford. Unless you're there during the morning or evening rush, you might wonder: Why is this bus even running?

That's because out of Cincinnati Metro's nearly 50 bus lines the 28 only boasts an average of 12 riders per trip, according to a recent study commissioned by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which owns and operates Metro.

That ridership level ranks it the lowest in the fleet.

Route 28 is a poster child for a larger problem facing Metro: a looming budget deficit exceeding $30 million in 2018, with analysts saying that gap will only widen over the next five years. Three million of those missing dollars would go specifically toward bus operations next year, prompting SORTA to examine where and when its routes provide service. 

"We are not keeping up with the current needs of the community," SORTA Board of Trustees Chairman Jason Dunn told WCPO. "A lot of that has to do with us finding a permanent funding source that allows us to meet those needs, and that’s what we’re focusing on now."

In addition to examining existing routes, SORTA's board voted in June to pursue a 2018 ballot measure asking voters to approve a sales tax levy, intended for additional Metro funding.

Who's riding and where?

The 28 could be considered the worst of Metro's worst. Excluding Metro's express routes serving the region's edges, the 28 has Metro's lowest ridership rate, at just below a half-percent of total Metro rides taken annually. It also brings in only about a half-percent of Metro's overall fare revenue, which means only about 14 percent of the line's operating cost -- just shy of $730,000 each year -- comes from the fare box.

For comparison, fare box recovery accounts for about 30 percent of Metro's operating costs system-wide. That also averages to about $3 in subsidized funding per Metro rider across all routes. The 28 requires nearly $10 in subsidies per rider to stay in operation.

Metro's most utilized route, according to ridership? That's the number 43, which runs back and forth up Reading Road, averaging more than 49 riders per trip and accounting for more than 11 percent of Metro's overall ridership.

The report, compiled for SORTA by consultant AECOM, found that the top 10 busiest routes account for 65 percent of all rides taken on Metro's fixed routes -- that is, those routes that run a prescribed schedule and serve fixed destinations.

While the data show operating costs tend to trend downward along with a route's ridership levels -- and headways thin out considerably during non-rush hours -- the numbers also show that the top 10 routes still demand more than half of Metro's operating costs.

Mark Samaan, Better Bus Coalition (WCPO)

"It seems ridiculous that we've gotten to this point," Mark Samaan said. He analyzes ridership data for the Better Bus Coalition, a group of advocates pushing for improved bus service. He's also a daily Metro user, and has been since he was a high school student.

Samaan attributes the lopsided ridership numbers to those top routes serving the city's major roads -- Reading, Hamilton, Glenway and Gilbert avenues, Madison Road, among others. The others, he said, consist primarily of job-connection routes and express routes.

He also attributes Metro's service shortcomings to the region's changing landscape when it comes to jobs. When the city became a key player in funding Metro's bus operations -- rewind to 1973 -- Downtown was the epicenter for job growth.

"Now, however, jobs are being created outside of the city. The largest job center outside of the city is Blue Ash," he said. "That service only brings (riders) in and out of the city, not between the suburbs."

A problem 45 years in the making

In one respect, it makes sense that the routes serving the most people should take the lion's share of the operating dollars. But Samaan and others have trouble reconciling the ridership numbers with Metro's persistent budget problems.

Jason Dunn, SORTA Board of Trustees Chair (Provided)

Dunn said Metro's funding source levels today are roughly the same as they were almost a decade ago: "(T)he current funding source that we have in 2017 is the same funding source that we had in 2008," Dunn told WCPO. "The same needs of the customers expressing that they want, we’re trying to fulfill that today."

Other than fare revenue, a primary source of funding comes from a 0.3 percent earnings tax collected by the city of Cincinnati. With fare revenue, the two funding sources make up roughly half of Metro's approximately $100 million annual budget.

Samaan characterizes it as a problem that began more than 40 years ago, when voters approved the earnings tax, and leaders have failed to adjust it since.

"We’ve known that this was only a temporary solution," he said. "We’ve known since the Great Recession that the city’s income tax wasn’t going to cut it funding the system.

"They do not have the funding to have bus routes to send, to have bus routes to where people want or need to go or to serve populations outside of the city limits," he said.

As the current budget structure stands, Metro is facing a projected operations shortfall of more than $18 million by 2021. Adding in capital budget needs on top of operations costs, that deficit will top $40 million in just the next two years. 

It's a scenario that Dunn describes as requiring "hard decisions," in that the most immediate budget solutions could mean service reductions, fare increases or both. Metro is dipping its toe in that water already, seeking feedback on possible service adjustments to its three least utilized routes: the 28, the 50, which serves Sayler Park along River Road and the 1, which connects the Museum Center and Eden Park.

"We don't want to, by any stretch of the imagination, make it inconvenient for our riders to get where you need to go," he said. "At the end of the day, we still have to operate as an agency and be responsible."

Dunn said Metro has also decided not to fill some open positions, and SORTA is restructuring its administration to save more money.

Kicking the sales tax can

Hamilton County voters do not have a supportive history when it comes to tax levies. 

Out of five attempts over the last several decades, only one -- the earnings tax initiated in 1973 -- earned voter approval. A 1-percent sales and use tax proposal failed in 1979. The next year, another 1-percent sales and use tax failed by a 50-percent margin. Then there's the Metro Moves initiative of 2002, which would have planned for more than $1 billion for bus improvements along with a proposed regional light rail system via a half-cent sales and use tax. That plan failed by nearly 40 percent.

This also makes SORTA unique in Ohio. While Ohio law mandates that counties establish transit authorities, Metro is the state's only bus system serving a major metropolitan area that does not utilize a county-wide sales tax as a permanent source of funding. 

Transit advocates have been working to place a measure on the ballot for the past few years, finally gaining the SORTA board's approval for a 2018 push earlier this year.

"What makes me mad is that we've kicked the can for so long and now the can is at the cliff," Samaan said. "If we kick it again, it goes off the cliff."

While Dunn's board has resolved to pursue a sales tax initiative, it still is considering the details: a half-cent, three-quarter cent or 1-cent option are still on the table. Only the latter two would address the transit agency's current budget problems.

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune (WCPO)

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune -- a Democrat and long-time champion of public transportation projects -- has expressed concern that a 2018 ballot measure could see the same fate as its predecessors, and instead points the finger at state and federal officials for abandoning regional public transit.

Specifically, Portune referred to reductions in state contributions to local government-funded programs.

"Why are there so many levies on the ballot?" Portune said. "It's because the folks in Columbus and the folks in Washington are getting out of the business of doing what they are supposed to do, and instead they're delegating it through law, through unfunded mandates to people on the local level.

"It's a great way to balance a budget... but that balance was built up through surpluses that existed because the state was reducing its support for local government."

Others say SORTA's budget woes could have been avoided altogether, preempting the need for a sales tax. Chris Finney, a spokesperson for local political action group COAST, said recent transit agency spending should have gone toward Metro instead of other transit-related projects.

"SORTA simply has lost its way in providing clean, speedy, efficient transportation for the poor and working class in Cincinnati," Finney said in a statement to WCPO. For Finney, SORTA has been "distracted" by other recent projects, like the Riverfront Transit Center and the streetcar.

SORTA only manages streetcar operations, with all streetcar construction and operations funding coming from the city budget.

Still, Dunn remains optimistic and resolved toward pushing Metro toward a county-wide approach to public transit.

"Moving forward, that is our end game, is to make this transit system a regional approach," he said. "Our region needs a robust transit system to survive, and that’s a fact. If that is not seen as an investment, we might as well pack up our bags and leave."

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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