SORTA warns budget woes could mean higher fares, cuts in Metro bus service

CINCINNATI -- The region's largest transit agency warned Tuesday it might have to cut service and raise fares if the city of Cincinnati won't free up money from its reserves.

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority projects a $3 million deficit for 2018 -- a figure that's expected to grow in coming years.

The nonprofit agency, which operates the Metro bus system, gets about half its operating budget from a 0.3 percent city earnings tax dedicated for transit use. The latest budget shortfall is distinct from Cincinnati's streetcar, which is funded separately.

SORTA announced Tuesday it would be asking city officials for $3 million from Transit Fund reserves; by law, the money is for transit use only.

To trim costs last year, SORTA eliminated four management positions, delayed some capital projects and switched to self-funded insurance. The agency continues to struggle with replacing its fleet of older buses, which cost more to maintain and operate.

"We've stretched our resources as far as possible, and we will continue to find ways to reduce costs and improve productivity this year to try to offset the deficit," Metro CEO Dwight Ferrell said.

Ferrell also warned that SORTA's current funding model isn't sustainable, and that budget gaps will get larger. The agency has considered asking Hamilton County voters to pay as much as an extra percent in sales tax to help pay for operations, but it's unclear when -- or if -- that ask might go on the ballot.

SORTA hasn't decided what routes might face cuts or elimination. The agency will finalize its 2018 fiscal year budget in November.

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