Cincinnati Metro: Higher bus fare could mean end of the line for some

CINCINNATI -- As Cincinnati Metro works to find new ways to fund its regionwide bus service, officials have said higher bus fares could be on the horizon for the beleaguered transit system.

But for riders like Alissa Holloway, that could mean the end of the line.

"If fares increase, then I probably would have to stop catching the bus overall," she said.

Holloway is one of thousands of low-income Cincinnati residents who don't own a car and rely on Metro every day, for everything from getting to work, shopping for groceries, medical appointments and other errands.

Alissa Holloway, of Northside, relies on the bus almost every day. (Eric Clajus/WCPO)

For now, the Northside resident is getting help. Since losing her job, she enrolled with Cincinnati Works, a nonprofit that provides job-seekers employment services and connects them with potential employers.

"Since I've been coming to Cincinnati Works, I haven't really had to worry about bus fare because they do give bus passes to come down there," she told WCPO.

Cincinnati Works also provides members who need it with a Metro pass to get to and from their Downtown offices, as well as to and from job interviews.

Holloway is an example of how important subsidized bus fare is to a large portion of the Tri-State's low-income individuals and families -- especially as fares could potentially increase steadily over the next decade.

Results from a recent survey by the Human Services Chamber of Hamilton County put data to anecdotes like Holloway's, finding -- among other results -- that roughly 60 percent of low-income bus riders surveyed said they would have to stop using Metro if fares increased by an average of just 10 cents a year for the next 10 years.

Why raise fares in the first place?

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority has been working for years to address what it knows will be a gaping budget shortfall unless they can find a new, permanent source of funding.

SORTA owns and operates Cincinnati Metro and has funded bus service under the same model since 1978, when the city of Cincinnati committed to Metro three-tenths of every cent paid to the city's earnings tax. The last time Metro fares increased was 2009.

As a result of this and other factors, Metro is facing a nearly $200 million shortfall over the course of the next 10 years.

Unlike a sales tax levy -- which requires voter approval -- raising fares is one way Metro could more directly increase annual revenue. A fare increase would only require approval by Cincinnati City Council. Metro aims to fund 20 percent of its operating budget each year through fare revenue, according to Brandy Jones, SORTA's director of external affairs.

In 2018, SORTA estimates fare revenue will make up roughly 18 percent of the operating budget.

 

"The fare increases that could go into place are meant to ensure that 20 percent of our operating costs are funded by fares," Jones told WCPO. "We think it is fiscally responsible to ask our customers to help pay for that portion with their fare."

Last year, SORTA unveiled options for new funding models, all of which included the potential for "modest fare increases" on an incremental basis.

"Each year, (the board of trustees will) evaluate on a year-by-year basis whether or not a fare increase is necessary," Jones said. "The thought is that by doing it in smaller increments when needed it would be less burdensome on our customers versus doing a larger increase at one time."

A lot of need, but not much wiggle room

Even a small increase, though, can have a big impact -- especially for those who rely on the bus regularly.

Cases like Holloway's and thousands of others prompted the Human Services Chamber -- of which Cincinnati Works is a member -- earlier this year to conduct a survey gauging the need for Metro service among their low-income clients, as well as measuring the impact of increased fares.

The Human Services Chamber connects more than 50 human services agencies across the county -- things like employment resources, family services and help for the poor or homeless, among other needs. Its public transit survey, released last month, measured how many of its agencies' clients use the bus, live on a low-income wage and do not have a car.

Low-income residents' reliance on Metro bus service (Provided, Human Services Chamber)

Out of the 700 individuals polled, more than 80 percent said they do not have a car, and nearly 60 percent said they rely on the bus to get to and from work or school.

"We're looking at transportation as one of the main barriers to our clients in being self-sufficient," said Human Services Chamber Executive Director Gina Marsh. "A lot of the folks we know, just from anecdotal evidence, are using the bus. What we didn't know is how many are using the bus, what kind of challenges are they facing."

Cincinnati Metro fare schedule:

Zone 1 (City of Cincinnati) - $1.75
Zone 2 (Hamilton County outside of Cincinnati) - $2.65

Fares increase up to as much as $4.25 for service to surrounding counties.

The chamber's survey found that roughly 30 percent of its low-income clients said they would not be able to afford a 25-cent increase in fares over the next 10 years. If fares go up by a dollar -- that would be an almost 60 percent increase -- even more won't be able to afford it.

 

Marsh said she isn't optimistic that wage increases for low-income riders would keep up with that sort of increase in fare.

"A 60 percent increase in fares is very steep when you consider what are the wages likely to increase over the next decade. I don't think it's going to be 60 percent," she told WCPO.

The survey also found that nearly 20 percent of respondents would use Metro if fares were lower.

An 'audacious' request?

City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard has been outspoken about her opposition to Metro fare increases since hitting the campaign trail last fall.

"I don't wish to increase our bus fare," she told WCPO. "I think we need to think of a more creative way and more innovative way to bring revenue to Metro."

Dennard's issue lies in Metro's existing struggles to provide the service levels it promises, as well as what she characterized as Metro's inability to grow over several decades.

"Even our bus schedules look the same as they looked when I was in high school," Dennard said. "There's been such a lack of innovation and creativity at SORTA. Sometimes people are late. They lose their jobs because sometimes the bus doesn't show up when it's supposed to.

Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard (Scott Wegener/WCPO)

"I think it's very audacious for SORTA, for Metro to ask for more money when they're not doing what they're supposed to do right now."

Dennard said she'd rather see something like a sales tax increase or other new revenue generators be put in place -- things that would increase ridership and take some of the burden off individual riders.

Some things to make riding Metro more appealing to more potential riders -- like free Wi-Fi on board or bus-only traffic lanes -- are currently on the drafting board. Metro has launched Wi-Fi on a handful of its buses already, and City Council has requested the administration prepare a report on the feasibility of a pilot bus-only lane on Main Street between Fifth Street and Central Parkway.

As for a sales tax levy to support Metro -- a historically unpopular idea in Hamilton County -- Dennard said, "I'm in favor of it. We have to invest in our transportation system -- period -- not only because it helps our underserved communities, but it also invests in our city."

Dennard also worries that bus service is stuck in an old paradigm of thinking: "History has said buses are for poor people, and so there's been a lack of investment because people don't think the transportation system impacts them if they live in the suburbs or drive a car every day.

"The thought to increase fares is a symptom of the larger issue that is when people don't have money or they're lower-income, they should take just any old thing. I just fundamentally disagree with that," she said.

Empowering people through transit

Jones said Metro has been aware for years of the struggles its low-income riders face as far as expenses.

"This is something that we're definitely sensitive to, that we are aware of and are concerned about," she told WCPO.

A little more than a decade ago, SORTA created the nonprofit Everybody Rides Metro, which provided subsidized Metro passes for low-income individuals. But that well dried up last year.

"That program did eventually go away, as the grant funding it was no longer available, and ERM was unable to locate any other resources of funding," Jones said.

The Human Services Chamber thinks it has a solution -- something similar to the ERM program, Marsh said.

Gina Marsh, executive director of the Human Services Chamber of Hamilton County (Eric Clajus/WCPO)

Her team is calling it the Transportation Empowerment Fund. The idea is to set up a nonprofit or some other sort of governmental agency to disperse $300,000 per year for three years to agencies to use for purchasing bus passes for their client members.

"Several cities including Minneapolis, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon) and Austin have implemented a similar program," Marsh said.

"What we have come up with was what we think is really a win-win-win for the business community, for the human services community, for low-income individuals -- and even for SORTA," Marsh said.

Marsh said she and her team have engaged both City Council and SORTA with their plan.

"The question is always about funding," she said. Three-hundred thousand dollars per year calculates to about a half-percent of the roughly $55 million in Metro revenue generated per year through the city's earnings tax -- Metro's principal funding mechanism, providing roughly half the bus system's yearly operating budget.

Meantime, riders like Holloway will continue to find the financial support they need wherever they can find it.

"It's kind of a lot, but I mean I have to use it because I have to catch the bus because I don't have another way of transportation," she said.

For now, though, she said, "Cincinnati Works really helps out."

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

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