We know that Metro is in dire straits. If the bus system does not change its local funding source, 20-30% of service will have to be cut in 2019. Fares will have to increase to pay for less service. The system is already running at bare bones as it is. In 2009, on the heels of falling earnings tax revenues from the Great Recession, Metro cut service by 20% and raised fares by 75%. The administration was gutted and open positions were eliminated. Metro’s CEO and other administrators make considerably less than their counterparts in the transit agencies of our peer cities. Over 100 buses are past their lifespan, causing frequent breakdowns and delaying service system-wide.
When asked what should be done with Metro, many of our leaders give the same answer but worded differently: Regionalism! The idea is that bringing in more communities to Metro’s service area will allow for better service to places where it is needed and will connect outlying job centers to the rest of the region. This is certainly a great idea; however, dig a little deeper and the idea falls apart given Metro’s immediate needs.
One idea put forth is to seek the formation of a regional, 3-state, 8-county transit organization to serve the Greater Cincinnati region starting in 2020. Each county would chip in funding relative to the amount of service provided and we would finally have transit in our entire metropolitan area. “People will be able to have a one-seat ride from Mason to CVG.” Sounds good, right? Wrong. I can’t even get from Clifton to CVG without transferring, and it takes over an hour. Hamilton County has enough pressing transit needs to address before providing new service in other counties. Less than three years is not enough time to form a regional commission crossing 3 state lines. No suburban county will vote to raise their taxes to fund a system that is currently on its knees as it would clearly be a bailout.
Pittsburgh’s transit agency, the Port Authority, has embarked on a push for a regional transit system with the 10-counties making up Metro Pittsburgh. Talks have been ongoing for years. Additionally, Pittsburgh already has a strongly funded transit system that carries nearly 5 times as many people per day than Cincinnati’s. Their regionalism talks are going well because they are not doing so in order to save the system from collapse. They are inviting their suburban peers to join their already strong network. Our current system in Cincinnati is, at best, embarrassing. Additionally, these 10-counties are all in the state of Pennsylvania, eliminating the need to take into account multiple state laws governing transit.
We only have 1 year before Metro goes broke. Unless we can magically find an extra $20 million a year until the regional commission is created, this is a nonstarter. Regional commissions take time to create precisely because of the nature of politics: no one wants to give up or share power, yet a regional commission only works with significant cooperation and compromise from all involved. Many, many years will be needed before this commission is ready to go, if it is ever ready, not including the extra time it will take to pass transit levies in the 7 suburban counties. In the future this will be great to have; in the short and medium-term, putting a Hamilton County transit levy on hold to seek this regional solution will be destructive to Metro and its current riders. Unless the goal is to gut Metro, we must focus on Hamilton County before reaching out to the suburban counties.
In Ohio, does anyone seriously believe that the residents of Butler, Warren, and Clermont counties will vote to raise their taxes to support a dying bus system in Cincinnati? I grew up in Cincinnati and I can tell you, 100%, that such a levy will go down in flames. No matter what new service these counties receive from a regional transit agency, they will not support a plan that is subsidizing Cincinnati’s bus system. Period. And that’s just in Ohio! Campbell, Kenton, and Boone counties will also have to approve a levy, likely a sales tax, to contribute to the new agency. Their current arrangement of each county distributing millions from their general funds in the form of grants every year is not enough. The amount can vary year to year and there is no permanence which prevents long-term planning.
Dearborn County, Indiana? That county currently has zero bus service. What makes you think they will support paying for a regional system when they have no existing interest in transit?
The fact is that bringing up “Regionalism” in the debate over fixing Metro is nothing but a stalling tactic. Creating a regional agency will take many years, but we cannot wait. In pushing for regional transit immediately, we run the risk of delaying a Hamilton County transit levy while we try to hammer out a ‘perfect’ solution. Should Metro be forced to make large service cuts as we wait for our political leaders to ‘try’ to create a regional transit agency, those who rely on the bus will face disaster and we will further poison the perception of public transit in the public’s eyes.
We do not know why some politicians want to delay the levy even further by talking about regionalism, despite delaying it every year since the start of this decade. There will be no more waiting. We need to act now, not later, not next year, not in a little bit, but now. I look forward to voting on countywide transit in November 2018, and I hope Hamilton County will get the choice to decide before it is too late.
Email your elected officials and demand that SORTA act to place a bus levy on the ballot for 2018:
County Commissioner Todd Portune
County Commissioner Denise Driehaus
County Commissioner Chris Monzel
Mayor John Cranley
Cincinnati City Council