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SORTA Board Still Not Ready To Ask Taxpayers For Help, Despite Need

Bill Rinehart
Cam Hardy of the Better Bus Coalition takes the lecturn to encourage SORTA to back a resolution to fund Metro, Cincinnati's bus system.

A new report backs up fears that Metro faces a significant deficit over the next 10 years. It also comes as the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) board continues to debate asking voters to approve a sales tax.

Consulting firm EY conducted the study for the Transportation Business Coalition, and delivered it to the board at Tuesday's meeting.

Mark Samaan of the Better Bus Coalition spoke before the board received a briefing on the report. He and the coalition have been pushing for a levy on the November ballot. "We're getting down to the wire here," he says. "Every day that we wait…is another day that more people will not be able to get where they need to go; where people will be late for work and potentially lose their jobs; where people won't be able to get to the health care and shopping areas where they need to go."

The deadline to put a levy on the November ballot is July 25. The SORTA board voted at the June 2017 meeting to move toward a request.

Board Member Pete McLinden says he's not ready to support a levy yet, but says the transit system funding does need an update. "We’re working under an antiquated 1972 agreement. If anything, we all agree, it's not working," he says. "We need help from the federal government. We need help from the state. We need to bring people together and have a regional transit talk."

McLinden says while he appreciates the idea of a truly regional transit system, there are smaller steps that need to be taken first.

Such a system has long been the goal of Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune. His vision includes a total of eight counties in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Portune has also questioned the idea of a Metro sales tax, arguing it would mean "doing more of the same."

Portune introduced a fifth-of-a-cent Hamilton County sales tax on Monday. It was approved on a vote of two-to-one.

McLinden says that the county commissioners' proposed increase is a concern for SORTA's options. "There is a limitation on the public, on how much they will approve," he says. "If you have the right plan and vision, they will approve. We saw that with the zoo levy over many years; we've seen that with the library. But you have to convince them. What is your plan, what is your vision and how is this going to help me?"

He envisions something on the scale of "Preschool Promise, on steroids." McLinden says transportation affects everyone and everything, but he's not ready to vote for a levy just yet. "I know the need, it's just going forward, what's the right option? What's the right choice? Do we go this year? Do we go next year? I feel the frustration of the public, because we've been talking about this for years."

Cam Hardy of the Better Bus Coalition also says it's time to make a decision. "It's pretty hot outside and I've already been on several buses that didn't have air conditioning," Hardy says. "I would imagine that that situation's going to get worse and I would like some sort of resolution." He adds that the resolution should properly fund transit so buses can be replaced on time.

The EY report laid out other "hypothetical opportunities for cash flow, cost savings and revenue enhancement" for budget deficit reduction, and listed the degree of difficulty and the risk involved.

Asking for financial help from Cincinnati was labeled as highly difficult with medium risk. Finding savings in wages and benefits was highly difficult with high risk. Reducing service would be easy to do, according to the report, but could have future implications.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.