Here's one transportation advocate that won't be offering support for a SORTA sales tax levy

Here's one transportation advocate that won't be offering support for a SORTA sales tax levy
Posted at 8:23 AM, Jan 23, 2017

CINCINNATI -- One of the region's biggest transportation proponents will refuse to support a sales tax increase if the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority puts one on the ballot this year.

Leaders of the region's transit agency announced last week they are considering asking voters to pay as much as an extra percent in sales tax to help pay for operations -- specifically for its bus service, Cincinnati Metro.

But Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune told WCPO that such a proposal is unlikely to attract support among local leaders -- and is likely to fail.

"I don't think it will pass," Portune said of a possible sales tax increase. "There's so many reasons why any kind of opposition to this tax will send it down. It's the wrong time. It's the wrong year," he said.

It’s a critical year to pass a levy, if you ask Jason Dunn, who chairs the transit authority's 13-member advisory board. The board needs to act fast to find more cash -- or the Cincinnati Metro bus system faces a budget deficit as soon as 2018. A report released to SORTA last week shows the agency is staring down the barrel of a more than $300 million budget shortfall over the next decade.

"We have to do something," said Jason Dunn, who chairs the transit authority's 13-member advisory board. "Transportation is a big question when people choose our region to locate."

SORTA assembled The Metro Futures Task Force initiative last year to explore how to restructure its beleaguered bus system. It presented three sales tax options: a half-cent, a three-fourths cent and a 1-cent sales tax increase option, although the financial firm that ran the numbers also said the half-cent option would not be sufficient to close the budget gap.

Portune, a Democrat who often talks about the importance of a bigger and better regional transportation system, believes SORTA has some more pressing issues to fix.

He ticked off complaints against the transit authority: He suggested the agency hasn't worked enough to expand transportation access throughout the county, has done a "horrible job" providing services for people with disabilities, and hasn't exhausted all options before considering a new sales tax.

His main gripe with SORTA, though, is that it's focused too much on city transit such as operating the streetcar. County voters, he believes, will reject a new sales tax out of fear it will be used to subsidize the city's streetcar and because they might not see enough benefit from the system.

While levy funds would strictly go to maintaining and expanding Cincinnati Metro bus services, Dunn said, Portune believes the public will still question how SORTA plans to use the additional funds.

"They've been very disengaged with the county," Portune said of SORTA. "You're talking about a countywide effort here... You can erect all the walls you want to say a penny (of the levy) is not being spent on the streetcar, but voters will see it that way."

SORTA won't need to get the commissioners approval before sending a levy to voters but their support -- or lack of -- could help or hurt their efforts. Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus, a Democrat, is waiting to learn more details on SORTA's plan before she takes a stance. Chris Monzel, the three-member commission's only board's only Republican, was not immediately available for comment.

State law allows a transportation authority to charge up to a 1.5 percent tax on sales made in a county.

SORTA is one of the only major metro systems not currently using a sales tax to fund operations. The Cleveland area's transportation authority utilizes a one percent sales tax while the Columbus regional system levies a half-percent tax.

If SORTA asks voters to approve a one percent sales tax increase, it would make Hamilton County the most expensive place in the state to make purchases, tied with Cuyahoga County. Purchases in the county would come with an 8 percent sales tax charge.

Dunn said SORTA is exploring other funding options to keep them afloat in coming years.

“We looked at raising fares, consolidating routes to meet the demand that we have,” he said. "We've explored grants and things from the federal government, but those things we can't count on because it's just not guaranteed.”

In addition to the projected budget shortfall, recent studies have found that, while Cincinnati Metro delivers is current services efficiently, it also fails to provide access to more than 75,000 area jobs.

"We finish in the middle, toward the bottom, when it comes to having transportation that connects people to where they need to go," Dunn said.

Amanda Seitz reports on government and politics for WCPO. Connect with her on Twitter (@AmandaSeitz1).
Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and development for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).