Aging bridges and broken-down buses rank among Hamilton County voters' top concerns

Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 31, 2018

CINCINNATI -- The state of the region's roads, bridges and public transit sits at the front of Hamilton County voters' minds as the 2018 midterm elections approach, with more than one high-profile race hanging in the balance.

Just ask Celeste Treece.

Over the last several months, she and her team at Commen Strategies -- a nonpartisan, minority-owned polling group based in Cincinnati -- have knocked on nearly 10,000 doors throughout the county, gauging voters' top concerns, both for the region and the nation, leading up to Election Day on Nov. 6.

Co-owner of Commen Strategies talks to WCPO on Oct. 30, 2018, about issues concerning voters leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. (Lot Tan/WCPO)

"Transportation is really starting to become a top priority, especially as people start moving back into the city," Treece said.

Specifically, Cincinnati Metro bus service, the Western Hills Viaduct and the Brent Spence Bridge come up frequently when speaking with voters.

"I would say (transportation is) within the top five responses we're getting from voters," Treece said.

It's no surprise, then, that these same issues have followed the gubernatorial race -- between Republican Mike DeWine and Democrat Richard Cordray -- and the race for Ohio's 1st Congressional District pitting incumbent Republican Steve Chabot against Democratic challenger Aftab Pureval.

Both races remained highly contentious with no clear front-runner less than a week before Election Day.

Here's a breakdown of where the candidates stand on these issues:

'They want better bus service'

Maybe the sharpest distinction between the candidates in question -- when it comes to transportation -- is between the gubernatorial candidates, and the line gets drawn at public transit.

It's on Hamilton County voters' minds, too, Treece said.

"They want better bus service," she told WCPO. "They're thinking about the environment, more walkable communities."

Ohio gubernatorial candidates Richard Cordray (left) and Mike DeWine (right) answer questions for an Ohio Public Radio panel (facing away from the camera) on Oct. 8, 2018. (Ohio Public Radio)

In an Oct. 8 debate hosted by Ohio Public Radio, both candidates were asked how they would address a looming $40 million cut to public transit funding across the state just next year.

"The state has to play a role," DeWine said. "I'm a very good listener. I'm someone who travels the state a lot. That has to be a real focus."

DeWine also pointed to his "Ohio Prosperity Plan," which would create "opportunity zones" that, with lightened tax burdens, he said would attract businesses and jobs to underserved, poorer areas of the state in which people might not be able to afford a reliable vehicle to get to work.

"What we can do by doubling down on those 'opportunity zones' is encourage businesses to bring their jobs to where those people are, which makes a huge, huge difference," he said.

Cordray criticized DeWine's answer as not being an answer at all.

"All I heard you say was the state has to play a role, but you won't tell us what it is," he said.

Cordray has promised he would put a ballot measure before Ohio voters that would finance nearly $2 billion in infrastructure improvements across the state. He said his budget would be the first in the state's history to fund public transit specifically.

"Revolutionarily for the first time, we will fund public transit as part of that," he said.

Cordray's stance on public transit made headlines last week, when he stumped for better bus service aboard a Central Ohio Transit Authority bus.

"To recognize that we have almost a third of the state in terms of area that has no public transportation and what that means for people, how that constrains their lives is something I really think it’s time we attended to,” Cordray told Ohio Public Radio.

DeWine says Cordray's plan is an empty promise.

"I'm not going to come in and do what Mr. Cordray has done and promise everything to everybody," DeWine told the Ohio Public Radio panel.

Ohio spends less on public transit than 44 other states, and this year's Ohio House budget appropriated $6.5 million to transit. Locally, less than 1 percent of Cincinnati Metro's $98 million operating budget for 2018-19 came from state coffers.

Until they can find a new source of funding, officials with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority say Cincinnati Metro bus service faces a $184 million budget gap over the next decade.

The SORTA Board of Trustees considered putting a county-wide sales tax levy on this fall's ballot, to bring new funding to Metro service, but the board ultimately chose not to pursue that measure this year.

Crumbling roads, aging bridges

Both Cordray and DeWine list investing in the state's roads and bridges first among their infrastructure priorities, and here DeWine might be able to lean on his affiliation with previous administrations in Columbus for more credibility than his opponent.

Ohio saw record investment in road and bridge projects over the previous two terms under Republican John Kasich. The state has spent more than $16 billion on rehabilitation of the state's existing infrastructure since he took office in 2011.

In 2018, 90 percent of the Ohio Department of Transportation's budget went to "take care of what we have," according to ODOT Director Jerry Wray.

More than roads, Hamilton County voters want answers to the Western Hills Viaduct and the Brent Spence Bridge problems, Treece said. Both bridges need to be replaced, in the viaduct's case, or supplemented with a secondary bridge, as officials have recommended for the Brent Spence.

Candidates for Ohio's 1st Congressional District, Democratic challenger Aftab Pureval (left) and Republican incumbent Steve Chabot (right), squared off during a WCPO-hosted debate on Oct. 24, 2018. (WCPO)

Voters expect the congressional candidates, Chabot and Pureval, to lead the way in getting funding to complete these long-delayed projects.

"They just want to be sure that these bridges get state and federal funding," Treece said -- particularly West Side voters, for whom both bridges could be a part of their daily commute.

The bridges came up in an Oct. 24 debate hosted by WCPO between the two Ohio 1st District candidates, and they served as a way for the candidates to attack their opponent's awareness of the region's needs for federal dollars.

Pureval said the lack of progress on either bridge project is a symptom of what he called Chabot's lack of advocacy for the region in Washington.

"We haven't had strong leadership in Washington, and we haven't secured the funding needed to complete these projects," he said.

Pureval said he would join the House of Representatives' Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and work to help city and county leaders apply for more federal grants. Late last year, both the city and county applied for federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants to fund the Western Hills Viaduct.

"I won't be on the Foreign Affairs committee traveling around the world, racking up frequent flier points," he said. (Chabot serves as one of that committee's 47 members.) "I'll be a true partner for local leaders."

Chabot denied Pureval's statements, saying the challenger hasn't been around the district long enough to see all the money he has brought to southwest Ohio's infrastructure needs.

"He's probably never even heard of the Waldvogel Viaduct," Chabot said, referring to the aging structure that crossed the Mill Creek Valley at Sixth Street. It was replaced in 2012, while Chabot held the office, using federal grant money.

"We got money for the viaduct. We got money for the I-71 and 75 improvements. We got money for the Fort Washington Way, the riverfront projects. I could go on and on," he said. "We'll work with the city and county on the Western Hills Viaduct like we always have."