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Following recent trend, Metro staring down another budget gap for 2020

Posted: 9:53 AM, May 15, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-15 09:53:20-04
Metro bus fare? There's an app for that

CINCINNATI — 2019 has some exciting things in store for Cincinnati Metro, but the transit agency is still looking to plug a nearly $6 million budget gap as it prepares for next year.

As the city prepares for more than a month of back-and-forth budget negotiations heading into the new fiscal year, the bus service provider presented its upcoming budgetary needs to City Council's Budget and Finance Committee this week.

The city's earnings tax provides roughly half -- around $50 million -- of Metro's annual operating budget.

"We do have some challenges for 2020," Metro CEO Daryl Haley told the committee Monday. Haley said that, after accounting for some unexpected revenue surpluses from 2018, the transit agency will still come up $5.8 million short of the funding it needs to maintain current levels of bus service throughout southwest Ohio.

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Agency -- which owns and operates Cincinnati Metro -- is required by state law to produce a balanced budget each year. Unlike the city, which operates on a fiscal year of July 1 - June 30, SORTA operates on a fiscal year that aligns with the calendar year. This means Metro has until October to find a solution to plug the gap.

Part of Metro's request Monday was that the city authorize $53.9 million from the earnings tax for its 2020 budget, only half of which would come from the budget City Council will consider next month, due to the staggered overlap of the two's fiscal years.

Haley said one factor that could help plug the remaining $1.1 million unaccounted for: the recent Ohio gas tax increase. Last month, the Ohio General Assembly agreed to increase the state's fuel tax by 10.5 cents per gallon of gas and by 19 cents per gallon of diesel fuel. This is expected to increase funding for the state's more than 60 transit agencies by roughly $70 million annually.

"We expect to get some funds from that that will help balance our 2020 budget," Haley told the committee.

But transit agency officials have been warning for years that stop-gap measures like using reserve funds -- which after next year will be depleted -- and banking on uncertain figures like the gas tax are not long-term solutions. That's why conversations surrounding a new county-wide sales tax levy have begun swelling in recent months.

Metro continues to operate on a funding model established in the 1970s, which relies primarily on the city's earnings tax. Hamilton County voters have rejected four attempts in as many decades to pass a sales tax-generated revenue stream for bus service. As for recent conversations, the SORTA Board of Trustees has balked for the last several years at putting a new transit tax proposal on the ballot, citing the political climate.

It wasn't all bad news from Metro officials Monday, though: The agency introduced 30 new buses to its aging fleet in 2018, with another 43 coming this year.

"We estimate that will save us about $500,000 in parts," Haley said.

Also on the way: new bus stop benches and shelters, financed through advertising revenue. Haley estimates the Metro will install 200-250 new benches in the coming months and years. As WCPO's I-Team reported last year, the majority of Metro stops do not provide a place to sit or shelter from the weather.

Haley also detailed plans for a new transit mobile app that will integrate multiple components of planning a trip on the bus -- including using the single app to plan a trip, even if it involves other transit systems, like the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky or the Bulter County Regional Transit Authority.

"So you'll be able to plan your trip with Butler County, with us, with TANK, all in one app," Haley said. "It'll give you walking time, text alerts as to what time the next bus is coming. You can set up alarms for when you should start walking.

"We're very excited about that."

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter ( pat_laFleur ), Facebook, or by email at pat.lafleur@wcpo.com.