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Transit authority considering tax levy options to cover Metro budget shortfall

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Posted at 7:30 PM, Jan 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-17 19:40:42-05

CINCINNATI -- The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Board of Trustees heard recommendations Tuesday morning for how to cover a looming budget shortfall for its Cincinnati Metro bus system, including a possible county-wide sales tax levy.

Financial consultant AECOM presented a report during Tuesday morning's board meeting, outlining the potential reach for varying degrees of a Hamilton County sales tax hike, and the numbers might not have been as encouraging as initially hoped.

According to the report -- which presented three sales tax options -- the cheapest option, a half-cent sales tax, "did not provide adequate revenue to address the budget deficit and would not improve service to the community," according to a SORTA news release.

A half-cent increase would mean a 0.5 percent hike in Hamilton County sales tax.

The other two options presented -- a three-fourths-cent option and a 1-cent option -- would both mean closing the budget gap and expanding service to a transit system that, according to a 2015 University of Cincinnati Economic Center study, fails to provide access to some 75,000 jobs in Hamilton County.

The three-fourths-cent option would increase service hours by 22 percent, increase arrival frequency -- known as "headways" -- along more than 30 routes, and pay for four new transit centers, according to the report. This option would increase ridership by an estimated 4 percent per year.

The 1-cent option would mean a 55-percent increase in service hours and headway improvement for almost 50 routes. Thirty routes would offer earlier and later service, and this option would make way for six new crosstown and circulator routes. This option is projected to increase ridership by roughly 6 percent each year, the report said.

The 1-cent option would also cover the costs of SORTA's ambitious 5-year service expansion plan, dubbed "Reinvent Metro," unveiled last August, which seeks to increase Metro's 17 million annual rides to 20 million by 2021.

"SORTA is at a crossroads, and we're nearing the time when we need to decide which path to take," said board chair, Jason Dunn. "Either way, we are reinventing Metro – for the better with more service and amenities, or for worse with decreased access to jobs, school and healthcare."

The board heard AECOM's recommendations but took no action during Tuesday's meeting. A sales tax levy would have to be accepted as a ballot measure for the 2017 election cycle, and then approved by Hamilton County voters.

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