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Transit advocates will push for bump in city income tax to boost Metro bus service

Posted: 4:46 PM, Jan 16, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-16 17:00:59-05
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CINCINNATI — A local transit group will petition Cincinnati voters to boost Metro bus service with an increase in the city's income tax, advocates with the Better Bus Coalition announced Wednesday.

Coalition president Cam Hardy released preliminary ballot language via Twitter Wednesday morning, fewer than 24 hours after the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Board of Trustees met for the first time in 2019. That meeting was the board's last regularly-scheduled meeting before the Feb. 6 deadline to submit its own ballot measure before Ohio's May 7 primary election.

The board previously looked to the May primary election as its next chance to present a transit tax ballot measure to Hamilton County voters, after opting to postpone any action until after November's general election.

"Since the board, the city and the county cannot fulfill the bus riders' needs, we're going to go to the citizens of Cincinnati to ask them to raise the earnings tax," Hardy told WCPO shortly following Tuesday's board meeting. "We didn't want to do this because we wanted to give the board the opportunity to lead, but it's very clear, after this meeting and tons of other meetings, that that's not going to happen.

"I think it's incumbent upon us to take this into our own hands."

Hardy said the coalition will target this year's November ballot for the measure.

The bulk of Metro's funding — about 50 percent, comprising $55 million annually — already comes from the city's earnings tax. Hardy said the BBC's proposed tax increase would add another $35 million to Metro's budget each year. The boost would allow for more frequent pick-ups along most Metro routes as well as 24-hour service on routes with the highest ridership.

The Better Bus Coalition's proposal would increase the city's earnings tax by .2 percent and cost someone earning an annual salary of $100,000 an additional $200.04 per year.

Metro's latest projections estimate that, without a new funding mechanism, the bus system faces a $160 million deficit over the next decade.

The SORTA board opted last July to table efforts to present voters with a sales tax levy option this fall, citing the political climate and the board's then-recent turnover of roughly half its members.

"We're going to continue to push as hard as we can, to get all the stakeholders, the politicians on the same page. Getting the Reinventing Metro plan established as something we can take to the community was the first step so we can really engage the community in a much stronger way moving forward," said SORTA Board Chair Kreg Keesee. "We know we have to do something soon."

Metro first introduced the "Reinventing Metro" plan in 2016, framing it as a five-year initiative to offer more frequent, reliable and expanded service. The transit agency has worked over the last two years to refine that plan.

Keesee said new board members who arrived at the table in early 2018 wanted more time to familiarize themselves with the plan's details before approving it or a tax levy it would propose.

"Back in July, when we had the last discussion about a levy, there was some discussion with the community and the board, quite honestly, particularly from the new members across the county, saying they didn't really understand the plan and would like to have more time to give input," Keesee said.

Meanwhile, the Better Bus Coalition began recruiting volunteers to help gather signatures to put their proposal on November's ballot. Hardy said the first training session for interested volunteers will take place on Feb. 2.

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