Frustrated Cincinnati Bus Riders Take Transit Funding Into Their Own Hands

Fed up with county representatives hostile to transit, advocates are fighting to give the city more resources and a stronger say in transit policy.

An overcrowded Cincinnati bus. Photo: Cam Hardy
An overcrowded Cincinnati bus. Photo: Cam Hardy

Relying on the bus in Cincinnati has never been easy. To prevent it from getting even tougher, local transit riders are taking matters into their own hands.

The regional transit agency, SORTA, is facing a $38 million shortfall next year, which could trigger service cuts as  deep as 20 percent. But last week, the SORTA board declined to put a small regional sales tax hike to fund transit up for a vote in November. Now bus advocates have to collect 8,000 signatures to get a city-only transit measure on the ballot.

SORTA currently operates a bare-bones system, with only a handful of bus routes providing service that arrives at least every 15 minutes throughout the day. Cincinnati ranks near the bottom among major American cities in access to jobs via transit.

“Some buses have air conditioning, others don’t. Some buses show up on time, and some don’t. Some buses show up, some don’t,” said Cam Hardy, head of the grassroots advocacy group the Better Bus Coalition. “It’s hit or miss.”

Better Bus Coalition President Cam Hardy, left. Photo: Cam Hardy
Better Bus Coalition President Cam Hardy

To turnaround service, bus advocates are launching a campaign to win more resources and increase local control over the transit system for the city of Cincinnati. The status quo, they say, gives too much power to Hamilton County, which encircles Cincinnati.

At a SORTA board meeting last week, city officials supported the idea of a transit ballot measure that would raise funds from a sales tax increase. Representatives from the county, however, opposed the measure, however, and there was no vote.

Longtime Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune has spearheaded opposition to the ballot measure, making it a litmus test for the county’s six appointments to the SORTA board that were filled this February.

Hardy says bus riders can’t wait for the county. “It’s always ‘This is not the right election,’ said Hardy. “We’re fed up with it and we’re going to take it into our own hands and put it on the ballot and see if city residents will support it.”

Hardy’s coalition, which includes the local chapters of the Amalgamated Transit Union and the NAACP, will collect signatures for a ballot measure to raise funds for transit from a 0.5 percent income tax.

Since Hamilton County hasn’t supported SORTA, Hardy also wants the city to get more control over transit resources. Express bus routes serving suburban areas should be cut, for instance, and city officials should decide where service operates.

“I don’t think it’s fair that city residents should be paying the brunt of this,” said Hardy. “Why should you get a say if you don’t pay?”

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  • JZ71

    Reality check – the bulk of the funding currently comes from the county, not the city. If the board decided not to take a tax increase to the ballot, when they’re in dire need of additional funding, odds are good that polling indicated that it had no chance of passing. http://reinventingmetro.com/index.php?page=about

  • ATK87

    The link that you posted straight up says that “Metro’s main source of public funding is a 0.3% City of Cincinnati earnings tax,” and, “SORTA’s sustainability requires a sales tax in Hamilton County…”

  • JZ71

    Digging deeper, we’re both right: “Metro has a contract with the City of Cincinnati under which the city collects and passes on to Metro 3/10th of 1% of the earnings tax paid by everyone who works or lives in the city. This funding was voted on and approved, by city residents in the early 1970s.”

    “Metro does not receive other local taxes, although funding partners in adjacent counties do pay for Metro routes in their respective counties. Expanding Metro services outside the city would require additional funding from some other source.”

    “Metro does not operate in Northern Kentucky, where transit services are provided by the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK). Metro and TANK work cooperatively to provide regional transportation. Riders can transfer between the two systems from Metro’s Government Square hub in downtown Cincinnati.”

    http://www.go-metro.com/quicklinks/quicklinks2/faqs

    I’m not sure what the current split is between city residents and non-residents paying the earnings tax, both population-wise and revenue-generated, but the fundamental issue is whether or not switching from a CITY earnings tax to a CITY & COUNTY sales tax would receive voter approval? If there’s major opposition, there’s not much reason for going to the voters.

  • nswartsell

    The assertion that the bulk of Metro’s funding comes from Hamilton County is totally false. Counties outside Hamilton County pay a small portion for the few routes that go into their jurisdictions. Otherwise, it’s mostly city earnings tax and paltry contributions from the state. I suppose some paying that earnings tax live in Hamilton County, but that’s a hell of a lot different than the large contributions from counties many other bus systems receive.

    The cake was baked against this levy long before any polling was done. Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune has been against the levy since it was first mentioned because he has a larger vision for a three-state, eight county regional transit agency. Portune appointed six members of SORTA’s board, which decided not to ask for the levy.

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