Ambitious 5-year plan contrasts fallen revenues, looming staff cuts for Metro

Ambitious 5-year plan contrasts fallen revenues, looming staff cuts for Metro
Posted at 4:42 PM, Aug 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-16 16:52:20-04

CINCINNATI -- Local transit authority board chairman Jason Dunn could have opened this month's meeting Tuesday morning with, "I've got some good news, and I've got some bad news."

The good news: The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Board of Trustees got their first glimpse into a new strategic plan for the region's bus system, Cincinnati Metro, slated to begin next year -- one with the ambitious goal of achieving 20 million annual rides by 2021.

For scale, Metro currently boasts about 16.5 million rides per year, Metro spokeswoman Brandy Jones told WCPO.

How will they do it?

The plans are still preliminary and some finer details have yet to be put into place, but the five-year plan -- dubbed "Reinvent Metro" -- covered everything from operations overhauls to cutting costs and increasing revenues, to repositioning marketing efforts and "enhancing (Metro’s) image."

Starting last fall, Metro engaged in a series of community listening efforts and millennial outreach -- through new features like an upcoming mobile ticketing app or events like a bar-hopping "entertainment bus" -- to appeal to a wider ridership-base.

Trustee Brendon Cull praised the presentation as "comprehensive," but did raise concerns that it might not be rider-oriented enough, questioning the plan's reliance on social media as a manner of gathering rider feedback and asked about those riders not using social media.

IN DEPTH: Metro's story is Greater Cincinnati's story

Now, for the bad news: Transit officials also reported during Tuesday's meeting that an internal audit of the bus system found a $286,000 deficit in the month of June, making for a nearly $450,000 shortfall year-to-date.

Lower than expected fare revenues were primarily to blame, officials told the board: $119,000 of June's deficit was a result of unmet revenue thresholds, 6 percent below the budgeted income.

Labor also “remains unfavorable,” said one transit authority staffer, a point SORTA CEO Dwight Ferrell quickly took up and addressed himself.

"(Fiscal years 20)16 and -17 will be difficult choices moving forward," he told a room full of SORTA employees. This, Ferrell said, would most likely include a yet undetermined number of jobs cut from Metro. Some of those positions are currently unfilled, he said, but Trustee Ron Mosby mentioned a hiring freeze already in place for all but core, operational workers.

"We’re looking at all levels," Ferrell said. "We need to be aligned structurally to support (this strategic plan)."

Tuesday's revenue announcement was made as gas prices continue to hover lower than they have in years past, to which many attribute falling sources of state and federal funding for transit systems.

Speaking of state and federal grants, Ferrell said, "We still have to be competitive in that space."

Still, Ferrell admitted those grants on their own are not enough: "But that’s still a stop-gap...It is incumbent on transit systems to pick up more and more of the share."

The plan, as outlined at Tuesday’s meeting, remained general about solutions for cutting costs and increasing revenue, other than to set the goal for increased rider satisfaction.

But the plan is part of a more than two-year history of not just listening sessions, but also commissioned studies, hired consultants and formed committees to address what leaders have previously described as a looming shortfall of more than $20 million for the transit system.

For better or worse, the SORTA board adjourned Tuesday with lower-than-planned numbers, but also with high hopes. Another way to look at it, though, could be they left with some long-term solutions to some short-term problems.

But perhaps Dunn hit the transit agency’s shifting strategy on the head when he said, "We have to commit to our mission, and keep pushing."

The board will vote on the proposed strategic plan at their next meeting, Sept. 20 -- nearly two weeks after the much anticipated Cincinnati Streetcar opens for passenger service.

Prior reports by WCPO's Lisa Bernard-Kuhn contributed to this story.

Follow WCPO transportation and development reporter Pat LaFleur on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).