A citizen group's work and plan could get a revamp of the ailing Metro system off the ground

Better Bus Coalition hopes to influence SORTA

CINCINNATI -- Fresh off his re-election, Mayor John Cranley has pledged to revamp the region's ailing bus system during his second term. How and when he plans to do so remains unclear, but a group of transit advocates are hoping their recently released plan will accelerate the timeline.

"We're gonna force this conversation," said Cam Hardy, president of the Better Bus Coalition. "We do wish the mayor would embrace us a little bit more than he has, but hopefully he comes around and sees that we mean business and work together."

Using detailed route maps and census data, the Hamilton County Better Bus Plan outlines the group's wishlist for Metro service in the region, including more neighborhood transit hubs, additional crosstown routes and several bus-rapid-transit lines.

The plan assumes that Hamilton County voters pass a 0.75-cent sales tax levy next year. While there will be a levy, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority has not indicated the specific amount because the state recently changed its tax code to allow for levies in 0.01 cent increments, rather than quarter-cent intervals.

What is clear, however, is that SORTA desperately needs an alternative source of funding. Staying with the 0.3 percent city earnings tax will lead to fare hikes, route slashing and a $20 million budget deficit over the next five years.

While the Better Bus Coalition is not affiliated with SORTA, Hardy believes their advocacy can help drum up support in the region.

"We were pushing for a levy, and we were like, we need to come up with some kind of plan because SORTA ain't got no plan, politicians ain't got no plan, nobody ain't got no plan, and here we are talking about a levy," he said. "The public ain't gonna go for that."

The plan's main architect is Mark Samaan. Currently finishing up his master's in planning at the University of Cincinnati, Samaan says he and his team spent over 300 hours on the document.

Many of the existing local routes remain, but the plan adds 11 crosstown routes, many of them situated in the northern part of the county. "The only way the county is going to be on board is if they get more bus service," said Hardy. "And they deserve it."

Currently, only three lines run east-west, which means that traveling from Mt. Airy to Kenwood, a 20-minute car ride, can take hours.

With the additional lines, 86 percent of Hamilton County jobs will be within a quarter-mile of a Metro stop, compared to 68 percent of jobs in the existing system.

Another big feature of the plan is the bus-rapid-transit (BRT) lines. BRT is a service where buses have their own dedicated traffic lanes and signal priority and arrive every five or 10 minutes.

The plan's main two BRT lines, the Red Line and the Blue Line, will start downtown but then diverge, running up Hamilton Avenue and Montgomery Road, respectively.

Local transit advocate John Schneider admires the plan's aspirations but is skeptical about the BRT lines. "The unfortunate thing about Cincinnati, with respect to BRT, is that our streets are narrow," said Schneider, who managed the MetroMoves campaign in 2002.

"It's not perfect, it's a starting point," said Samaan. "We hope that people run with it and add their ideas."

Before drafting the plan, the group spent weeks gathering input from bus riders by holding events, distributing surveys and attending community council meetings. More frequent buses were the top priority, but other issues like poor stop signage, ADA-accessibility and the lack of bus shelters cropped up, too.

"It's not just about these sweeping changes," said Samaan. "That's important, but it's the little things that are really cheap and easy that we don't do because no one in power has made it an issue."

Hardy says SORTA Board Chair Jason Dunn reached out to him and said he was "very impressed."

 

According to Brandy Jones, SORTA director of external affairs, the transit authority sees the Better Bus Plan as community feedback they can work into their own plan, which she expects to come out in December.

"I can't say enough how grateful we are for groups like the Better Bus Coalition," Jones said. "This is the community's system and our goal is to reinvent Metro for the community."

Regardless of the plan's details, Hardy will keep pushing for more.

"This is about the people. This ain't about politics, this ain't about party lines, this ain't about any of that," he said. "This is about transportation and getting people to work and getting the expansion that we need."

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