Hamilton County voters are being asked in March to increase the sales tax to pay for transit. It's something they've rejected at least three other times going back to the 1970s.
Supporters of Issue 7 say this time is different for a couple reasons. First, the measure would also be used to fund road and bridge repairs around the county. Second, the issue has bipartisan support, even from some people in the county who have opposed such tax increases in the past.
Pete Metz is the manager of transportation initiatives for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. He calls Issue 7 a "consensus" plan built with many parties at the table including Democrats, Republicans and Independents; elected officials; bus riders; and community, business, labor and faith leaders.
"It fixes the challenges we face on the public transit side while also investing new resources and infrastructure," Metz said. "I also think that we as a community, when you think about all of the big challenges we're trying to tackle, whether it be growth and economic development, or poverty or public health or sustainability, transportation sits at the core of all of those challenges, and the community has woken up to the need to fix this problem in a way that they maybe haven't in the last four tries."
How Does Issue 7 Work?
The Chamber has been working on the issue for about five years after hearing from members about needing better transportation to access local talent and attract new talent to the area.
The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority has placed the 0.8% sales tax increase on the ballot because they say the current funding model to pay for Metro bus operations is broken.
Currently people who live or work in Cincinnati are paying a 0.3% earnings tax to fund SORTA. But the agency says that's not enough revenue and it's projecting huge deficits if there's not a change.
If voters approve the sales tax increase on primary day, March 17, the city's transit earnings tax will go away. City voters approved a Charter amendment in November repealing the city's transit tax if county voters approve a sales tax increase to fund Metro.
That's one reason tax opponents are supportive because the earnings tax will be eliminated and replaced by a sales tax that's paid by everyone in Hamilton County, and also those who do business in the county. A study conducted when the sales tax was increased to fund Union Terminal renovations found about 50% of people paying the county sales tax are non-residents.
With voter approval, the county's sales tax rate would increase to 7.8%, making it the second highest in Ohio. Cuyahoga County's 8% is the highest. Hamilton County's new rate would be the highest in Southwest Ohio. As of October 2019, Butler County is at 6.5%, Warren County at 7%, and Clermont's sales tax is 6.75%. Kentucky's statewide sales tax rate is 6%, and Indiana's statewide rate is 7%.
If passed, collection of the additional sales tax would begin on July 1 and the city's transit earnings tax would be eliminated on July 2.
The transit tax increase would last for 25 years, and is estimated to bring in $130 million a year. Seventy-five percent - or about $100 million - of that money would go to SORTA, and the remaining 25%, or roughly $30 million, would be used for road, bridge and infrastructure repairs on routes used by Metro buses or those within three-quarters of a mile of those Metro routes.
How Does This Impact Bus Service?
So, what would the additional money for Metro mean for bus service? Supporters say it includes several things:
- Buses every 15-20 minutes on most routes
- 24-hour service on Montgomery, Madison, Hamilton, Glenway, Reading and Vine streets
- Most routes start earlier and end later
- Eight new bus routes with crosstown service, eliminating the need to transfer Downtown
- Extension of major routes to county line
- Elimination of zone fare in Hamilton County, one low fare and free transfers
What About Roads?
On the infrastructure side, the transit money will be used to make repairs or upgrades to the county's roads and bridges. The Chamber did a study that found the price tag for that work totals nearly $2 billion.
Cincinnati City Council has already approved a resolution saying its top priority for the new funding source would be to replace the aging Western Hills Viaduct.
A group called the Hamilton County Integrating Committee would be the one deciding which infrastructure projects are funded. It's a group made up of county, city and township officials.
Hamilton County, Cincinnati and other cities, villages and townships could apply to this group for funding. Those applications could be used to fund projects, provide matching funds for state or federal grants to complete projects, and use revenue from the transit tax to repay bonds to pay for infrastructure projects.
What Opponents Say?
Not everyone is in favor of the sales tax increase, and there are several people who have been sharing their opposition to Issue 7 in social media posts.
Dave Dickey, who lives in Symmes Township, addressed the Hamilton County Democratic Party in January when it issued an endorsement of the issue.
Dickey is concerned about the current governing make-up of the SORTA board, which has 13 members. Right now, seven of those are appointed by the city of Cincinnati, and the remaining six by the Hamilton County commissioners.
He's concerned county taxpayers will be providing the majority of the funding to SORTA, but the city will still be in control of that board.
However, the county would get the majority of the SORTA board appointments if Issue 7 is passed. That was part of a 2008 agreement brokered by then-council member John Cranley and the late Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune. The plan gave the city the majority of the board appointments if it was the majority SORTA funder, but called for the county to take that role if the county provided the majority of the agency's funding.
Perennial local candidate Jim Berns is also opposed. He told WLWT Issue 7 is a "taxpayer rip off."
"Everyday we see empty buses driving back and forth down the street, Metro is losing money, it's absolutely crazy to expand the service," Berns told the outlet.
Voters will have the final say on March 17, although supporters say they will not give up should the issue be defeated.