City Council on Metro: It's not good news, but we're still determined

CINCINNATI -- Members of the new City Council got their first look Wednesday at the state of the region's beleaguered bus service.

"It's not good news, but I'm looking forward to having these discussions moving forward and fixing it," said Council member Wendell Young during Wednesday's Education, Innovation and Growth Committee meeting at City Hall.

Metro's woes will likely mean future fare increases and possibly a new county-wide sales tax. Hamilton County voters would have to approve the sales tax hike.

READ MORE: Metro sales tax could mean faster service, longer hours

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority's presentation was the most comprehensive breakdown of Cincinnati Metro's financial struggles that the city has seen. SORTA owns and operates Cincinnati Metro, and more than half of its annual funding comes from the city's earnings tax.

Finding a solution to the looming $79 million budget gap for 2019 alone is what committee chair P.G. Sittenfeld called a "top bill item." Budget projections for the next decade exceed $150 million.

"This is one of the biggest items of the year, and that's why we wanted to start with this today," Sittenfeld said. "Even if you don't think this matters to you, it matters to you."

Wednesday's meeting was also Council's first opportunity to meet -- in an official capacity, anyway -- new SORTA board of trustees chairman Kreg Keesee.

Kessee previously spent four years, three of which included chairing a finance committee, as a board member. Accompanied by SORTA CEO and General Manager Dwight Ferrell, along with other top executives, he took the committee through the details of the budget gap.

What seemed to surprise council members most was the discovery SORTA had not raised Metro fares for nearly a decade.

"It's very disappointing when you focus in on the fact that we haven't had a fare increase in almost 10 years," committee member David Mann said. "It doesn't make any sense. That was a big mistake."

Ferrell said it's possible Metro will see a 15-cent fare increase as early as July 2018, and riders should expect incremental increases going forward into the following years. Any Metro fare increase requires City Council's approval.

Ferrell traced the existing financial problems, in part, back to 2003, when the transit board voted to shift some federal funding dollars from its capital budget to cover mechanic and bus maintenance expenses instead.

This ultimately led to a situation where the acquisition of new buses slowed down dramatically.

RELATED: Aging bus fleets means higher costs for Metro

"We should be buying 30 new buses a year to keep up," said SORTA's finance director, David Riposo. "Once they get more age, they get much more expensive to maintain."

SORTA purchased no new buses in 2017. 

The average age of a Metro bus is 12 years, according to Riposo. "The average among other peer cities is closer to seven or eight," he said.

Twelve years is when the Federal Transit Administration considers a bus too old for service.

Officials estimate the additional maintenance required to keep the aging buses running costs the transit authority an additional $500,000 every year. That's about how much it costs to buy one new 40-foot bus.

Every council member who mentioned Metro on the campaign trail last fall said it needs a fix, and many consistently listed it as a top priority going into the new term of council. That's including John Cranley, who was just re-elected as mayor.

SORTA officials will return to Sittenfeld's committee in the coming weeks to present specifics on their plan for bridging the budget gap.

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

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