Transit authority 'not ready' for 2016 ballot measure, but maybe 2017

CINCINNATI -- Local voters won't see public transit on the ballot next week.

But maybe next year.

Officials with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority are looking ahead to 2017 as the year to determine exactly how to implement a comprehensive and ambitious five-year plan to "Reinvent Metro" -- as it has been dubbed.

"What we have now is just not sustainable," said Jason Dunn, who sits as chairman of the transit authority's board of directors. During a board meeting earlier this year, SORTA CEO and General Manager Dwight Ferrell told board members that the bus system, Cincinnati Metro, had racked up a nearly $500,000 deficit in just the first half of 2016. 

That half million is part of a looming $20 million or more in budget shortfalls, also in store for next year.

It's a problem that prompted board members in June to direct SORTA staff to explore the feasibility of various revenue-generating and cost-saving tactics, including a potential tax levy that could appear on the ballot as early as 2017.

SORTA officials are still quick to emphasize that they are still early in the exploratory phase, and that a ballot measure -- whether or not it appears in the form of a tax levy -- is only one possible avenue.

"The (SORTA) board has directed us to explore this option, but no decision has been made," transit authority spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers wrote in an email Monday.

It wouldn't be the first time the transit authority sought to finance an ambitious plan through increased taxpayer dollars. But it would be the first time in a while.

The last time Hamilton County voters weighed in directly on public transit was 2002, when they considered the massive and controversial MetroMoves proposal -- a 30-year, $4.2 billion regional light rail proposal that would have spanned from Blue Ash to Florence to Lawrenceburg to Eastgate, had all the right players come to the table.

Turns out, no one did. Nearly 70 percent of Hamilton County voters rejected the one-half cent county-wide sales tax the plan would have cost taxpayers each year.

Hamilton County voters have a fraught history with sales tax increases: Just two years prior, Paul Brown Stadium opened also with the assistance of a half-cent sales tax, and with a deficit of more than $50 million. It was an agreement that even the NFL considered one of the worst deals ever approved by taxpayers.

There's also an element of fickleness when it comes to Hamilton County's view of a potential tax levy going toward public transit: a 2014 survey conducted by the transit authority found that 61 percent of respondents agreed that a sales tax is the best way to fund public transit improvements, but nearly the same number of respondents said they would oppose a half-cent sales tax increase.

So it's no surprise SORTA officials today are being cautious when considering the prospect of a ballot measure. But for Dunn -- who was not on the board when the MetroMoves proposal failed but recalls the time clearly -- the caution is less about bad memories and more about due diligence.

When asked why not capitalize on the four-year election cycle this year, Dunn said the transit authority just isn't ready yet.

"We'd do ourselves a disservice, and we would have moved too fast," Dunn told WCPO. "We need to explore every option.

"The board is committed to being factual, not politically pressured."

In addition to an ongoing series of public listening sessions, SORTA has commissioned multiple studies measuring service levels, financial efficiency, and customer satisfaction, among other concerns.

One such study, conducted by the University of Cincinnati Economics Center, simultaneously found Cincinnati Metro to be "the most operationally efficient (with) the highest service capacity" of all comparable American cities that have bus-only transit (the streetcar had not yet opened) while also failing to connect some 75,000 workers to their places of employment.

It's feedback and studies like these Dunn sees as the primary engine for moving expansion plans forward.

"We need data," he said. "We need more community input. I want to make sure that the community understands the risks and benefits (of not improving service)."

Dunn added that another economic study would need to be done before a tax levy were proposed: "If we were going for a levy, what would it cost based on interest and inquiries from the community?" he asked.

While Dunn did not say he was for or against the idea of a tax levy for Metro expansion, he did say some of the other options were less than desirable: namely, raising fares or reducing service.

"We could always increase the fares, but that's proven to do the opposite (of increasing revenue)," he said. "It's not conducive to being a rider by choice. These don't help."

Dunn said Reinvent Metro's inclusion of staff reduction was regrettable.

Whichever way SORTA proceeds in the coming months, Dunn did not mince words when it came to the urgency of Metro's financial state.

"The mandate is clear: We need more opportunities to connect people to jobs. Citizens are tired of waiting for infrequent buses to come," he said. "The reality is that this is not a sustainable funding model."

It's a reality that Dunn said is brought into focus simply by looking at "facts."

"It's truth and facts," he said. "We have to get out to the community and make it as simple as possible. It's taking it out of the boardroom and going to the individual communities and really centralizing the information to the entire region.

"We can't run from a looming issue. It's time for us to run to this problem, to fix it by speaking up and getting involved."

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

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