Future of local bus services: Buses needed for connecting commuters to jobs

Buses needed for connecting commuters to jobs (WKRC)

CINCINNATI (WKRC) - Cincinnati's metro bus system is at a crossroads.

Ridership is down, costs are up and unless voters approve a tax hike, fares could be increased and service slashed.

Mass transit is a key to a healthy economy, and connecting families to jobs.

In Local 12’s ongoing investigation of Childhood Poverty, Reporter Jeff Hirsh shows how one bus route sums up the strengths and weaknesses of the system.

On a bitterly cold morning, early-bird commuters gather at Government Square, just north of the Ohio River and just south of 6 a.m. in the morning.

The reason? To get to work.

While most folks are still home in bed, these first-shift workers are waiting for their buses.

Gia Duffy will ride #67, the Sharonville Job Connector, out to her job at a food processing plant in the suburbs.

Gia says it beats driving.

“It's too far and gas is expensive,” said Gia.

Route 67 is the perfect example of the strengths and weaknesses of Cincinnati’s Metro Bus System, so Local 12 rode along with Gia on her one-hour-and-five-minute trip.

The bus left downtown on time at 6 a.m. and headed up I-71.

Some passengers were dozing while others had their ear buds on or were reading emails as the bus ultimately wound through Sharonville, dropping off riders for jobs at various stops, like hotels and light industries.

It’s a good deal for $2.65, but there's a problem. If you miss the 6 a.m. departure, the next Sharonville Job Connector comes the next day.

“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

Most metro bus routes come downtown in the rush hour. The Sharonville Job Connector goes the other way.

Of metro's 47 routes, only six offer such reverse commutes, leaving thousands of jobs inaccessible to city residents who can't get to the ‘burbs.

Metro biggest funding source, more than half, is a portion of the city of Cincinnati’s earnings tax.

Metro is thinking of putting a countywide sales tax on the ballot, and that's a challenge.

Trying to get a transit tax approved by the voters is kind of like trying to get a school levy approved.

For a school levy you have to convince people who don't have kids that it's in their best interest to raise their own taxes. Same with the bus. You've got to convince people who never ride the bus that the bus is good for them.

People like Randy Heimbuch of Glendale, who says that: “I live close by, and so's my place of employment.”

Randy is a regular at the Bluebird Cafe in Glendale, and does not ride the bus.

Metro's bus boss was at the Bluebird recently: Metro CEO Dwight Ferrell has been making the rounds in various communities, chatting up the bus system.

“Public transportation is critical for economic development and growth in any region,” said Ferrell.

Metro faces millions of dollars in deficits in future years. Without more money, service will be cut and fares will go up.

So, would a non-bus user like Randy Heimbuch vote for a bus tax? Maybe…

“It certainly serves a purpose,” said Randy.

Actually, “purposes,” as in plural.

Obviously the transportation includes 15 million rides a year, but transit is also a highly subsidized social service for a largely transit dependent population.

Fares cover less than 20 percent of metro's expenses and buses are costly.

The Route 67 bus was a fuel-saving hybrid, a 2011 model with a $600,000 sticker.

That bus is relatively new, but one-sixth of metro's 350 vehicles are older than their 12-year useful life.

Old buses break down and new buses cost money. If metro had more buses, they could carry more people to jobs.

“Well we'd run more service to Sharonville,” said Ferrell.

Which Sharonville would like. The city might even offer financial breaks to large employers to get people to use the bus, but that would have to mean lots of new or retained jobs and net the city more income tax than it loses in incentives.

But so far, no big employers have said “let's do it.”

“That has not been an issue which has come up a lot. If it was, we would follow up and do whatever we could to help those businesses,” said Ferrell.

And so the dilemma of Route 67: It absolutely helps people get from the inner city to jobs in suburbia and reduces traffic on the highways, but one bus out in the morning and one bus back in afternoon is not going to change our economy very much, especially if riders miss the single afternoon departure.

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