Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Metro unveils expansion plan

New bus routes, network of 'hubs' carry $192 million building estimate

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Which has a higher price tag: an expanded regional public transit system — estimated at up to $192 million to build and $97 million annually to operate — or the cost of not doing it?

        That question is at the core of Metro's expansion proposal, which features dozens of new bus routes and a network of 31 depot-like “hubs” that would reflect Greater Cincinnati's suburban growth.

[photo] A computerized image of one of 31 depot-like “hubs” included in Metro's expansion proposal.
(Architect's rendering)
| ZOOM |
        “There's a saying,” Metro general manager Paul Jablonski told 400 people at the agency's plan-unveiling Tuesday at the downtown Westin Hotel. “If you keep doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting what you're getting.”

        What the public now is getting are increasingly congested highways, and a fairly limited bus service in which 85 percent of routes are within the city of Cincinnati.

        A light-rail system is part of expansion plans but not included in cost estimates.

        Meanwhile, outlying Butler, Warren and Clermont are among Ohio's fastest-growing counties.

        What seems inevitable, critics and proponents agree, is either a scaled-back proposal or a ballot issue seeking public funds.

        Metro officials examined the mass-transit experiences of 20 U.S. cities with similar transit expansions, including Denver; Dallas; Charlotte, N.C.; Columbus; and Dayton, Ohio.

        Most required local tax increases, according to Timothy Reynolds, Metro's director of strategic planning. In Columbus, taxpayers rejected a ballot proposal.

        “If you're going to have wholesale reconfiguring or light rail, then yes, additional resources would be needed,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Tom Neyer after Tuesday's event. But, he added, “Without effective transit, nothing else in the county can work at its best.”

    2000 operating budget of Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), which operates Metro bus service (in millions):
Local*: $28.1
    Fares: $15.3
    Federal: $12.5
    Misc. income: $4.5
    CPS: $4.1
    State: $3.3
    Total: $67.8 million
    *Local funding is from Cincinnati's 0.3 percent city earnings tax, which is paid by everyone who works in the city. Cincinnati estimates that more than half of this tax is paid by people who live outside the city.
        “I think public money for the public good is always money well-spent,” said Rose Nelson, 51, of Bond Hill. “What I don't agree with is public money for private ventures. You'll be hard-pressed to find people who voted for it, but somehow it passed.”

        “It” is Paul Brown Stadium, the $458 million taxpayer-funded project that drew strong criticism for its cost overruns and its perceived value to the community.

        “I think it's doubtful,” East End Community Council member Ian Scott said of a transit ballot issue. “People seem to feel negative about giving funds and getting a useful return.”

        Metro officials say construction and other capital improvements would cost between $108 million and $192 million, with about 90 percent coming from state and federal funding.

        But the new system would then cost about $97 million to operate. Metro's 2000 budget for operating costs is $67.8 million, with the largest portions coming from Cincinnati's earnings tax and fares.

        SORTA was established in 1968 and left largely to its own devices to finance operation. In 1971, it placed a countywide sales tax levy on the ballot. It lost. Metro was created the following year.

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