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Tri-State transportation crisis: Is Metro in a "death spiral?"

Is Metro in a "death spiral?" (WKRC)

CINCINNATI (WKRC) - A healthy public transit system is a key to breaking the cycle of poverty, but here in Cincinnati, Metro is facing big financial issues.

Issues so big that the chair of the board that oversees Metro says the bus system faces a "death spiral" in less than two years.

It's 6 a.m. in Milford.

Linda Clark and Marie Bartley have just arrived to catch metro's 29X to downtown, something they've both done for many years.

“This is our transportation in to town,” said Linda.

But both women now worry "if" their bus will make it.

“We hope it does. We just have to wait and see,” said Marie.

In the month of May, Marie says 29X didn't show up five times. Metro confirms three missed trips and blamed the no-shows on a shortage of drivers.

“We just stand and wait and hopefully, the next bus 20 minutes later comes,” said Linda.

On Monday the bus did arrive, just seven minutes late.

Sometimes, the buses break down, meaning they don’t show at all.

Marie documented four times when she and other passengers on the 29X had to transfer to another bus when their bus had mechanical trouble.

Metro says its records show two break-downs on Marie's route.

“It happens on the way home. It happens on the way in. We had one time on the way… the transmission fluid went,” said Marie.

That lack of reliability, both women say, reflects on them and their jobs.

Jason Dunn, the chair of the SORTA board which runs Metro, is well aware of the issues Metro riders are now facing.

“The realities are, people are going to work at 7 o'clock, 6 o'clock in the morning, taking a two-hour bus ride to get to work on time. If a bus, because the frequency is not there on time, they're late, which means they have an issue, correct? With their job,” said Dunn.

Dunn says many of the problems are tied to a lack of funding which has left Metro with an aging fleet.

“We're taking money from capitol to use for operating, which is why you have older buses on the street right now,” said Dunn.

Right now, metro has 357 buses in its fleet. 63 of those buses have rolled past their useful life of 12 years.

Next year, the number of buses past their prime rises to 101. The cost to replace all those aging buses is $48.4 million.

And that’s money that Metro just doesn't have.

The situation, Dunn says, will only get worse... much worse.

“We will be in a death spiral, should we not move forward with a permanent funding source,” said Dunn. “The death spiral begins, frankly, when we don't have a funding source. 2019 is really when it will hit.”

Metro is funded in large part by a .3 percent city earnings tax that generates $53 million a year. Not nearly enough, Dunn says, who faces deficits and the very real possibility of deep cuts in service.

“If we continue on the path that we're doing now and not do anything, with a temporary funding source, we would have to cut routes so significantly that there won't be a need to have a transit system we'll be riding around on the carousels, horses on a carousel on The Banks,” said Dunn. “We've got nothing left.”

So, Dunn and SORTA are eyeing a Hamilton County sales tax hike of one cent.

“I think, as the options are presented, that is probably one of the best scenarios to make sure we're successful,” said Dunn.

According to SORTA's own estimates, a one-cent sales tax would infuse SORTA with $149.5 million, not only fixing Metro, but modernizing it

If the sales tax happens, a plan is already in place to add new buses, new routes and more frequent service.

The choice, Dunn says, is simple, but a sales tax hike has big hurdles.

The president of the Hamilton County Commissioners, Todd Portune, who wants a Tri-State regional system, opposes the sales tax.

“I think it would be disastrous, frankly if they were to do that,” said Portune.

A sales tax needs a vote. First by SORTA's board and then by voters.

“Either we vote to expand or vote to decline. Those are the realities of it,” said Dunn.

Meanwhile, Linda and Marie say Metro is already in decline.

It’s so much trouble that Marie says she's now considering going back to her car.

“I have made the comment that it's time to maybe stop riding the bus,” said Marie.

While Metro got Marie to her job on time this day but she and others say that's no longer a given.

As big of a problem as the aging buses are, the shortage of drivers is looming just as large.

Metro is so short on drivers; it's offering to pay potential drivers to get their commercial licenses along with other big bonuses.

But again, all that means very little if the buses are old and not running.

How soon will we know whether SORTA will officially call for a sales tax hike? Very soon.

SORTA's planning and operations committee will make its recommendation about a sales tax on Tuesday morning.

The SORTA board will likely vote next week.

If it passes Hamilton County voters will decide this at the polls.

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