Cincinnati Metro: Can transit advocates carry Issue 22 momentum into 2020 sales tax campaign?

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Posted at 5:54 PM, Nov 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-08 10:10:43-05

CINCINNATI — After gaining voters' approval of Issue 22 Tuesday, the real battle for the future of the region's public transit launched Wednesday. Advocates began preparing to ask Hamilton County voters to do something they've never done before: increase their sales tax in order to boost funding for public transportation.

Issue 22 asked voters to eliminate the 0.3% of the city's earnings tax earmarked for Cincinnati Metro bus service, but that provision will only apply if voters also approve an 0.8% increase to the Hamilton County sales tax in 2020. Funds generated by the higher tax would be used to replace and enhance funding for transit and infrastructure.

Although Issue 22 passed by a 3-to-1 margin, increasing the county sales tax won't be such a widely accepted proposition.

Historically, few Hamilton County issues have faced such staunch and stalwart opposition as those involving sales tax and public transit. Since 1971 — the first time a transit-oriented sales tax levy failed at Hamilton County polls — attempts to fund Metro and other proposed transit investments failed by wide margins in 1979, 1980 and 2002.

How will 2020 be different from all the rest?

"The passage of Issue 22 is maybe the only pro-transit winning campaign in our county’s history," said Pete Metz, who heads up transportation policy initiatives with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Metz feels confident that voters knew going into the booth on Tuesday that this was the first in a two-step process. "They knew that this was a consensus plan. I feel really confident carrying that coalition into 2020," he said. "It’s a pretty incredible feat that Issue 22 — more complicated than any other issue on the ballot — how positively voters responded."

Metz also emphasized how public transit and road and bridge infrastructure go hand-in-hand.

"Investing in infrastructure is critical just like investing in public transit is critical," he said.

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority owns and operates Cincinnati Metro. On Sept. 30, the transit agency's Board of Trustees passed a resolution expressing its intention to put the 0.8% sales tax levy before voters either in March or November 2020. The stated purpose of the new sales tax levy would be to "raise $130-135M annually and fully fund the Reinventing Metro plan and dedicate 25% of the levy funds to maintain and improve infrastructure in Hamilton County."

BACKGROUND: How would a tax decrease lead to more funding for Metro?

According to estimates from the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce, Metro bus service would benefit directly from roughly $1 billion in needed infrastructure improvements across the county. Top among those needs: the Western Hills Viaduct and Columbia Parkway.

City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld said the county can't afford to wait any longer for the state or federal governments to step in and assist with these projects.

"If people are sitting around and saying, ‘Boy, I hope sure hope that Columbus, Ohio, comes to the rescue on the Western Hills Viaduct,’ or, ‘I sure hope the feds help us on our infrastructure so we can make improvements to Columbia Parkway,’ they’re going to be waiting and waiting and waiting," he said. "If we’re serious about seizing the moment to make those fixes, we have to be ‘yes’" on the sales tax.

An additional incentive might be built into the way Issue 22 is structured, as well: Without the successful passage of the 0.8% sales tax next year, the tax repeal approved Tuesday will not activate, and the city's earnings tax will remain at its current 2.1% rate.

Questions still unanswered

Leaders in the Hamilton County GOP said they were pleased with the results of Tuesday's Issue 22 vote, but want to know more about the proposed sales tax levy that will go before voters next year.

Indian Hill resident and the Republicans' contender for outgoing Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune's seat on the county board, Andy Black said he thinks the coalition behind Issue 22 is "going about it the right way" -- that is, by first rolling back Metro's portion of the city earnings tax -- but also said a 0.8% increase to the sales tax is a "big ask" and should only come with some limitations in place.

"There’s no sunset provision in the proposed levy, and I think that anything that's going to be put on the taxpayer’s back at that amount, there needs to be a sunset provision that at least lets voters reevaluate after five, 10 years," Black told WCPO by phone Thursday afternoon.

"I do agree with what they've done so far. I'm interested to see more details going forward," he said.

SORTA has until 60 days before Election Day — whether it's in March or November — to file the sales tax levy ballot measure's precise language with the county Board of Elections. Without that language, no number of resolutions or motions can guarantee much about how a new sales tax levy would play out.

Beyond the county's 0-4 record on attempts to pass such a tax levy for transit, some critics accuse the plan of not specifying clearly enough how the revenue raised would be spent when it comes to which road and bridge projects would receive funding. Under the current proposal, an appointed board within the local district of the Ohio Public Works Commission would determine how the $30-35 million raised annually for infrastructure improvements would be spent.

Ohio state law mandates that any infrastructure funds raised by a transit-oriented sales tax levy must go toward road and bridge projects that benefit that transit system.

There's also the lingering streetcar "divorce" at play. Under its current management structure, the city owns the Cincinnati Bell Connector; a third-party transportation firm, Transdev, operates it, and SORTA oversees Transdev's performance on the city's behalf.

Leaders from both the city and the transit agency have expressed concern that any affiliation between SORTA and the streetcar could compromise an attempt at a new sales tax levy for Metro bus service. The SORTA board's resolution stated the agency's commitment to exiting its streetcar agreement with the city by the end of 2019. Those negotiations are still in progress.