Hamilton County Board of Commissioners call for increase in sales tax for transit, but is it enough?

Posted at 5:38 PM, Jul 10, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-11 14:26:05-04

CINCINNATI — After years of declining to throw its weight behind a myriad of proposals for a county-wide transit tax, the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners came out Monday in support of a plan. But some in the transit community wonder if it's enough.

In a letter to the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Board of Trustees Chairman Kreg Keesee, the three-member board — all Democrats — said it could support as much as a 0.7% increase to Hamilton County's sales tax in order to boost funding for Cincinnati Metro. The increase would take the county sales tax to 7.7%.

The letter marks the commission's first expression of support for using the county sales tax as a funding source for Metro.

The bulk of Metro's funding — about half of its annual $100 million budget — comes from a portion of the city of Cincinnati's earnings tax. It's a model lawmakers established in the early 1970s and have never updated.

Transit officials blame an outdated funding model for budget forecasts in the red beginning next year. Metro CEO Daryl Haley said in May that Metro faces a nearly $6 million operating deficit in 2020 just to keep service levels as they currently stand. Metro officials predict a $60 million deficit over the next decade if voters and lawmakers cannot agree on a new funding mechanism.

An increase in the sales tax would require a referendum by voters. Hamilton County constituents have rejected four previous attempts to increase the sales tax for transit funding in as many decades.

The 0.7% increase supported by the county commissioners is one of six options presented by transit officials as part of the Reinventing Metro plan, with options ranging from 0.5% to a full 1% increase. The 0.7% option would:

  • add eight new routes
  • increase frequency on 29 routes
  • extend hours of service on 18 routes
  • increase weekend service
  • establish 24-hour service on 6 routes
  • add three new transit centers and one new park-and-ride
  • increase Metro Access service

All told, a 0.7% increase would more than double the current budget levels, adding $110 million to the bus system's funding.

But some in the transit community are hoping for a more aggressive increase in Metro funding through a 0.9% or even full 1% increase -- two other options outlined in the Reinventing Metro plan. A full percent increase would:

  • add nine new routes
  • increase frequency on 32 routes
  • establish 15-minute arrivals
  • establish crosstown service every 30 minutes
  • extend hours of service on 18 routes
  • increase weekend service
  • establish 24-hour service on 6 routes
  • add three new transit centers and one new park-and-ride
  • increase Metro Access service
  • establish four bus rapid transit corridors
  • open a new bus garage

Pete Metz, with Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce Transportation Initiatives, said a 0.9% or 1% increase would also allow for what he called "critical infrastructure" improvements -- for things like the roads and bridges Metro buses use every day.

"We're focused on improving our region's transportation system," Metz said in an email to WCPO. "To make a meaningful impact, we need to invest in critical infrastructure and improve our public transit system in Hamilton County. We look forward to continuing to build the broadest coalition possible -- including the County Commissioners -- to solve both of those needs."

Cam Hardy with the grassroots bus advocacy group, the Better Bus Coalition -- which has also been pushing for a .9% or 1% increase -- said it's time for all parties at the table to come together behind a single plan.

"I am happy that the commission has unified around a specific number and vision for our transportation system," he said. "It's time for us to gather around one plan that will pass in Hamilton County. If infrastructure gives us that chance, we must look at it.

"We need to be looking at everything at this point."

The chamber and the Better Bus Coalition are hosting a town hall meeting to discuss the region's transportation needs Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m., at Taft's Brewpourium in Spring Grove Village.