Transit authority board votes to seek sales tax levy on 2018 ballot for bus funding

CINCINNATI -- Just before the transit authority board voted to seek a sales tax increase ballot proposal, board chair Jason Dunn called up to the podium the only two children in the room.

"We take this vote on behalf of (you)," he said. "We vote for your future."

Before a standing-room-only crowd at the public library main branch's Tower Room, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority heard public input on current Cincinnati Metro bus service levels and gathered feedback on a proposed county-wide sales tax. The sales tax levy proposal would appear on the fall 2018 ballot.

The board voted unanimously Tuesday to take action toward putting the tax levy on the ballot, although the details of how much of a sales tax increase that would entail remained in the air.

The options facing the board are:

  • Half-cent increase: SORTA says this option would not succeed in covering the current budget gap, but would help increase service
  • Three-fourths-cent increase: Would close budget gap, increase service by 22 percent
  • One-cent increase: Would close budget gap, increase service by 55 percent

It's hardly the first time a possible ballot proposal has been a possibility, a point of frustration for many who offered comment from the crowd.

Andy Shenk with the Better Bus Coalition was one of the first to speak. "It's been far too many years since the system has seen real change," he told the board. "Something should have happened in 2017. Something should have happened in 2016, and 2015. I want to challenge the board to not only adopt to choose to move toward the levy but also to figure out how to take the proper steps to make this work."

Justin Jeffre, also with the Better Bus Coalition as well as the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, did not hide his frustration during Tuesday's meeting.

"This board has failed for the last 45 years to invest in public transit," he said. "We can't keep kicking the can on this."

Another concern raised during the meeting's public input session was the possibility of privatizing some of Metro's management and operations in order to alleviate costs and loosen the budget restrictions. It's an issue a large contingent of Metro drivers came out to oppose.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 627 represents Cincinnati Metro and Cincinnati streetcar operators. ATU Local 627 President Troy Miller spoke second. 

"We're here as a partnership, to fight for the levy," he said. "But if we're going to fight for the levy, we'll need to maintain our retirement system, or we won't have a partnership."

Under the ATU's current contract with SORTA, retirement benefits kick in after 32 years of service. If bus operation becomes privatized, drivers who have not reached that milestone could be at risk of losing those retirement benefits.

Just before the board's vote, Metro CEO and General Manager, Dwight Ferrell outlined what sorts of deficits Metro would face in years to come:

  • 2018: $31.3 million shortfall
  • 2019: $44.4 million shortfall

The most staggering number came when Ferrell revealed that, with no new, continual source of funding -- such as a sales tax levy -- by 2027, Metro would face a roughly $270 million deficit.

Now that the board's resolution has passed, Dunn said the next steps include addressing Metro's short-term deficit for 2017-18, as well as develop an action plan for implementing the processes involved in getting the measure on the ballot. Dunn said SORTA would need to assemble an independent coalition to campaign for the issue, as SORTA is not allowed to engage directly in canvassing.

Ultimately, Dunn's message was clear: "The time to act is now," even if the specific path toward that end remains to be found.

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

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