CINCINNATI — After two weeks of operating free of charge during the region's efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Cincinnati Metro began charging fares again Sunday morning after officials said free bus rides encouraged people to take use public transit for non-essential trips.
The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Board of Trustees Friday reversed its March 25 decision to suspend fare collection and reduce service as more cases of COVID-19 emerged across the Tri-State. Metro suspended fare collection from March 30 through April 11 to allow riders to board through the buses' rear doors and reduce the risk of close contact between riders and drivers.
SORTA Board Chairman Kreg Keesee said it was not an easy decision to make.
"I know that this is not an easy situation and that there's no perfect answer," he said after the board passed the motion reinstating fare collection.
The motion carried with only one dissenting vote from board member Thaddeus Hoffmeister. Three of the "yes" votes, though, came with notable hesitation. Board member Rod Hinton said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah — yes, with great hesitation," and member Kathy Wyenandt shook her head after casting her "yes" vote. Maurice Brown audibly sighed before supporting the motion.
Metro CEO Darryl Haley on Monday announced he would propose reinstating fares after his agency received multiple complaints from riders that buses felt too crowded once fares were suspended.
During that same news briefing, Mayor John Cranley indicated that multiple people who participated in the illegal gathering in Over-the-Rhine over the weekend told police they had gotten there by Metro bus.
"This is a trial-and-error issue," Cranley said Monday. "We have to reverse course quickly and change that culture quickly. If we can't stop the mass gatherings, we may have to take more extreme measures."
Brown questioned the connection between free bus fares and the incident in OTR.
"I haven't seen anything that substantiated that claim at all," Brown said.
WCPO requested Metro ridership data as well as video footage from buses on routes that would have run near the gathering at the time of the incident. Metro did not have that material immediately available.
When the transit board initially voted to suspend fare collection, Keesee said it was to reduce the potential for unsafe contact between operators and riders. Brown and others worried requiring riders to board using buses' front doors in order to pay a fare would jeopardize the safety of the bus operators by exposing them to potentially unsafe contact with riders.
"I don’t see how opening that front door is the solution if we’re trying to protect them from that virus," Brown said.
Haley informed the board Friday that Metro maintenance staff designed a plexiglass shield to install on buses that would separate the driver from the boarding passengers, then swing out and create a barrier between the boarding area and the rest of the bus when it was in motion.
Haley said bus operators are among those asking that Metro reinstate fares to discourage non-essential rides.
"Prior to us going free, we weren’t getting the complaints that we were getting about crowded buses," he told the board. "Do free fares then take what should just be essential trips — people going to and from work or the doctor’s office — and does it invite just the community because it’s free to ride the bus?"
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 627 President Troy Miller corroborated that Friday afternoon, telling WCPO that he supports the move to reinstate fares.
In a statement, he said, "Locally, more of my members have vocally expressed concerns since we went to free fares (due) to the number of passengers riding the buses increased."
Haley also said, though, that overall bus ridership across the system did not increase after going fare free.
Board member Rod Hinton worried that reinstating fares also could put an extra financial burden on people who recently lost their jobs but still rely on Metro for grocery shopping and other essential errands.
"I'm just mindful that we've had 700,000 people apply for unemployment over the last three weeks in Ohio," Hinton said. "For people who need it most — trying to get to the unemployment office, to the grocery, who are already in financial constraints — how does this decision just exponentially impact them even more?"
This launched a discussion about engaging with Human Services Chamber of Hamilton County, to see if Metro can engage people experiencing financial hardship due to the coronavirus outbreak to offer assistance.
Metro began collecting fares again on Sunday, April 12.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Human Services Chamber of Hamilton County as "Hamilton County Human Services." WCPO regrets the error.