CINCINNATI -- Transit officials will have more options to pitch Hamilton County voters than first thought when trying to sell a county-wide sales tax levy this November.
The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority in June voted to explore the feasibility of proposing a new sales tax levy for Hamilton County. The levy would seek to fill a $150 million budget gap facing Cincinnati Metro bus service over the next decade.
Cincinnati Metro has been under fire the last several years as ridership numbers have dropped, reliability has staggered and staff morale has dwindled. The diminishing ridership traces back to the board's decision in 2009 to reduce service without reducing the system's reach throughout the region. This resulted in longer waits between bus arrivals.
For Ferrell, Metro's biggest challenge boils down to three factors impacting ridership: wait time between buses, how long buses run each day, and time spent on the bus. The solution always boils down to money available.
BACKGROUND: Facing budget woes, does Metro need re-routed?
When first considering a sales tax as a solution, SORTA's Board of Trustees looked at half-cent, three-quarter-cent and 1-cent options. The board approved a sales tax ballot measure as the answer, but did not settle immediately on which option to present to voters.
Months later, after a recent change in state law, SORTA can now consider sales tax options in one-tenth-percent increments rather than just quarter-percent increments, making the options more flexible, said SORTA CEO and President Dwight Ferrell.
During a Dec. 12 board meeting, Ferrell and his staff presented six sales tax rate options, including .6-percent, .7-percent, .8-percent and .9 percent options, in addition to the original half-cent and 1-cent options.
Each comes with varying levels of service enhancements, Ferrell said. Here's a breakdown:
Ferrell pointed out -- as he did earlier this year -- that the .5-percent option would only serve to maintain the status quo. The new data he presented also showed that, after 10 years, Metro would still be operating at a $30 million deficit under that proposal.
"We basically would be asking people to pay more for the same," Ferrell said.
Moving up the scale, there are some enhancements they all share in common:
- new routes
- more frequent service on some routes
- longer service hours on some routes
- more weekend service
- three new transit centers and one new park-and-ride facility
The .7-percent plan would add seven-tenths of a cent per dollar of consumer spending in Hamilton County. This is where Ferrell said bus service would see "really transformational" improvements. It would add eight new routes and mean more frequent service along nearly 30 existing routes, SORTA's data show.
A few of those new routes would be crosstown routes -- something riders have been requesting more of for years, as WCPO has previously reported . Metro's current system offers three crosstown routes.
"If I need to go to Kenwood, I have to go Downtown on either the 78 or 20, and then go back out on the 4 or the MetroPlus," said regular Metro rider, Jeremy Moses. Moses lives in Springdale and relies on Metro to get around.
He told WCPO that more crosstown routes would be his top suggestion for Metro: "I don't want to have to transfer Downtown to go from here to Western Hills or here to Anderson or here to Kenwood. If I could go from here to Western Hills direct, that would be great."
The .8-percent option would add even more crosstown routes, as well as make way for one Bus Rapid Transit corridor. That means SORTA would identify a heavily used route that could accommodate a lane of traffic dedicated solely to bus traffic.
The .8-percent option also would introduce bus rapid transit -- often abbreviated to BRT -- to the Metro system. BRT would mean a lane of traffic dedicated solely to bus travel throughout select, heavily used bus route corridors in the region. The .8-percent plan would establish one BRT route.
"The .8 is really just a lead in to the .9," Ferrell said. That's because bumping up to .9-percent would mean four BRT routes along the Montgomery Avenue, Hamilton Avenue, Glenway Avenue and Reading Road corridors, four of the system's busiest.
The .9- and 1-percent options would also mean Metro routes could guarantee bus arrival every 15 minutes, "all day, every day," on local routes and 30 minute frequency on all crosstown routes, Ferrell said.
Only a few weeks before SORTA staff unveiled these details, grassroots advocacy group the Better Bus Coalition came out with its own recommendations for how to improve service. Their plan is based on a .75-percent sales tax, and includes many of the same items outlined by SORTA: more crosstown routes, increased frequency and bus rapid transit.
"It's not perfect, it's a starting point," said Mark Samaan, the chief architect behind the plan. "We hope that people run with it and add their ideas." Samaan is finishing up his master's degree in planning at the University of Cincinnati.
The catalyst that sparked the search for a new, permanent source of funding for Metro was a 2015 University of Cincinnati Economics Center study. It drew the conclusion that Cincinnati Metro fails to connect workers to 75,000 jobs across the region, despite being the most efficiently run bus system among 11 peer cities. That puts Greater Cincinnati dead last among its peers when it comes to connecting people to jobs.
The board did not set a hard deadline for making a recommendation on which tax rate to propose on November's ballot, but expressed interest in holding a series of public hearings in early 2018 to gather feedback from the community.
"Our strength here is having the data and our ability to listen to the community," said SORTA Board Chairman Jason Dunn.
This story included previous reporting by WCPO contributor Tim Broderick.