Tri-State transportation crisis: Metro facing deficits, declining ridership

Metro facing deficits, declining ridership (WKRC)

CINCINNATI (WKRC) - One of the keys to breaking the cycle of poverty is a vibrant public transit system that connects the poor to jobs.

But in Hamilton County, the bus system is nearly broken.

In Local 12's ongoing investigation of Childhood Poverty: Cincinnati's Crisis, Reporter Duane Pohlman examines Cincinnati Metro's looming crisis and competing plans to fix the transit system

Metro faces hundreds of millions in deficits, ridership is declining and metro admits it's old "hub and spoke system" no longer connects people to tens of thousands of jobs.

And when people can take the bus, they have long rides and limited runs.

People like Gia Duffy, who rely on metro's limited job connectors, have long rides and few routes to choose from.

“It's not easy. It's an inconvenience. It's only one bus that goes out there. A lot of people work out there. The bus will be packed. There should be another bus that goes out there, maybe two or three different ones,” said Duffy.

But that takes money and metro is running out of that.

To fix that, metro is eyeing a sales tax hike here in Hamilton County.

But a powerful commissioner is calling time out on that new tax, instead, he says it's time for a truly Tri-State regional transit system.

At a SORTA board meeting last Tuesday, the amount of money on our balance sheet is getting smaller and smaller.

The picture of a nearly broken bus system was clearly in focus.

If nothing is done, metro says it faces a projected deficit of more than $270 million in ten years.

According to a University of Cincinnati economics study, 75,000 jobs are not adequately served by metro's transit lines.

Since 2007, that lack of connection, in part, has caused ridership on the buses to drop by 35 percent.

SORTA is considering asking for a Hamilton County sales tax hike of up to $0.01 to bolster the bus system.

In a public meeting, the push to prevent cuts was greeted with support.

But in a surprise move, the president of the Hamilton County Commissioners, Todd Portune, offered new county money to prop up the bus system while he swatted down the sales tax talk.

“SORTA needs to hold off on putting any new taxes on or even attempting to do so. I think it would be disastrous, frankly if they were to do that,” said Portune. “I don't think it would pass and I also think it would have the reverse effect of undermining the effort of putting together a regional plan.”

Commissioner Portune is pushing a regional bus plan that serves all eight counties and three states.

The reason is clear when you look at the map. Right now, SORTA is centered on fixing metro's bus service in Hamilton County, but when you widen the picture to the eight counties of the Tri-State you can clearly see the pockets of poverty and jobs extend far beyond the borders.

Portune says you can't re-invent metro without a regional approach.

“SORTA sorta’ works, but it does not work in today's environment in serving a metropolitan region like we have,” said Portune.

So, Portune is calling a “time out” and pushing a regional plan that he says should have been set in motion a decade ago.

In the resolution from December of 2008, the Hamilton County Commissioners clearly state they want a regional bus system…

“We directed the board to report back to us by December 31, 2010 on their progress,” said Portune.

But they did not.

Seven years later and, outside of a few routes that connect to TANK in Northern Kentucky, Portune says there has been very little progress.

“It's not been anywhere near what we want,” said Portune.

Even though census data of the Tri-State clearly shows metro's routes are no longer connecting poor people to jobs, metro's plan to reinvent still does not include a regional system.

“SORTA has not embraced this, so I’m at the end of my patience on this,” said Portune. “Their recommendation and their answer to funding was simply a Hamilton County alone sales tax. To me, that was the final straw that they, our current transit board, still does not understand what needs to happen.”

So why has there been no real progress on that front?

“Well, I think to your point, I wasn't here in 2010, but what I can say is the board, moving forward is looking toward that,” said SORTA’s board chair Jason Dunn.

So why, after 10 years, did SORTA not go there already?

“I think, arguably, when the constitution… the bylaws, were re-comprised, that with the addition of the seats that were added, Warren County, Butler County, etc… those were the things that we were tasked to do,” said Dunn, explaining that time was invested into the seats, but not yet a plan.

While Dunn says he's open to it and that: “We will move forward with that regional approach.”

Commissioner Portune says it's time for action.

“The future growth and vitality of our region depends on this,” said Portune.

While Commissioner Portune is determined to push for a regional transit system, he admits it may take three years to get there.

SORTA chairman Dunn says metro doesn't have that kind of time.

Even with county help, Dunn says metro is facing a "death spiral" in less than 2 years.

Local 12 Duane Pohlman will continue to investigate and uncover answers on this subject.

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