Friday, November 10, 2000

Light rail backers see support for tax

Groundwork laid for ballot issue

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A recent survey of those who work, live or shop in downtown Cincinnati shows 64 percent favor up to a half-cent Hamilton County sales tax increase to pay for a new light rail system.

        The unscientific survey, conducted Sept. 5-22, also said 60 percent of downtown businesses favor a tax hike.

        “The numbers are fantastic, especially since ... we haven't yet gotten to the point of a widespread campaign toward a funding issue,” said Judi Craig, light rail project manager for the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, which is overseeing the development of the proposed project.

        In random phone calls, 457 “downtown consumers,” including non-Hamilton County residents, were interviewed on a range of downtown issues. The results:

        • 32 percent were strongly in favor of a new tax.

        • 32 percent were somewhat in favor.

        • 9 percent had no opinion.

        • 9 percent were somewhat against.

        • 16 percent were strongly against.

        Light rail opponent Rene Dierker said a poll of the entire county would show different results.

        “What we need is a poll of people who would have to put up with it,” said Ms. Dierker, 41, a teacher and Norwood resident.

        The survey was sponsored by Downtown Cincinnati, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group for the central business district, and conducted by John Fox Marketing, a Springdale marketing consultant.

        Anastasia Mileham, DCI vice president of marketing, said her organization has not endorsed light rail but was looking for feedback on what to do about downtown's limited parking.

        Hamilton County Commissioner Tom Neyer, recently appointed head of the Metropolitan Mobility Alliance, an offshoot of OKI that has been charged with finding ways to pay for a regional transportation system, said the survey didn't convince him light rail is a good idea.

        “Before I sign off on light rail, we need to see a lot more information,” Mr. Neyer said. “Besides, it's not for me to decide. We need to decide whether we have enough to take to the voters, and then they decide.”

        Ms. Craig said OKI has hired an outside firm to prepare a cost-benefit analysis of the project. The analysis is due early next year. She said officials will not attempt to put an initiative on the ballot until that is complete.

        The first phase of OKI's proposed system would run from downtown to Blue Ash, and cost $800 million. The federal government would pick up half the tab, and the state would pay 25 percent, leaving $200 million for local authorities to fund.

        Preliminary plans call for 19 stops along Interstate 71, with construction to begin in 2004.

        The long-range plan calls for 100 miles of track, with branches running from downtown through Northern Kentucky to the airport, up Interstate 75 to Butler County and an extension from Blue Ash into Warren County.

        News of the survey comes in the same week Democrat Todd Portune beat Republican Bob Bedinghaus, the man behind another large sales tax increase, for county commissioner.

        Mr. Bedinghaus was the main proponent of a half-cent sales tax increase that passed in 1996 and brought the county's current sales tax to 6 percent until 2032.

        The tax increase paid for the new Paul Brown Stadium and a to-be-built baseball stadium for the Reds. The football stadium subsequently went $46 million over budget.

        “It's said that the next capital project up for public vote will go down no matter what because of the stadium, but this poll gives us reason to be optimistic,” Ms. Craig said.

        If everything goes well, Ms. Craig said, the item could be on the ballot next November.


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