Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Transit proposal unveiled

By James Pilcher, jpilcher@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Metro today releases its much-awaited plan for revamping the area's mass transit system from a city-oriented bus service to a multimode system complete with light rail, street cars and transfer stations throughout southwest Ohio.

        For the first time, the plan includes specifics on a light rail plan for the entire region, beyond the Interstate 71 corridor and into Kentucky and Indiana.

        The entire light rail system — including lines in Northern Kentucky — would be finished by 2031, according to the report. The proposal is projected to cost $2.6 billion in Hamilton County alone.

        The bus upgrades proposed in the plan, the result of a two-year process of garnering public opinion on how to improve service, would include more east-west trips throughout Hamilton County.

        Metro officials say the regional approach is the way it will be from now on, as the MetroMoves plan is presented to the community — and potential voters on any tax increases needed for the 30-year project. Getting local funding is a prerequisite for winning the federal money to pay for half the project.

        “Before, we heard a lot of people tell us that they couldn't see how it would affect or benefit them and how could they vote for something that they wouldn't use,” said Metro chief executive officer and general manager Paul Jablonski. “But we have always envisioned this as a regional system, and now, we can show people on the west side or east side or in Evendale how it can benefit them.”

        In addition to recent changes such as a rerouting of the I-71 line to avoid building a tunnel under Mount Auburn and adding a new street car line, the proposal includes the first look at a proposed line that would run through western Cincinnati and Hamilton County along I-74. It also includes a commuter rail line west along River Road from downtown Cincinnati to Lawrenceburg.

        Mr. Jablonski said he hasn't decided yet whether to recommend that the board that oversees Metro — a board made up of Hamilton County and city of Cincinnati representatives — seek a tax increase on the November ballot. The deadline for putting such an increase on the ballot is Aug. 22, and the Southwestern Ohio Regional Transit Authority board is expected to make a final decision in late July or early August.

        If the board did decide to seek either a property or sales tax increase in Hamilton County, Mr. Jablonski said it would be enough to cover the entire project — which includes a $112 million expansion of the current bus system. Previously, Metro officials considered seeking funding for the I-71 line only, since that's the closest to becoming reality.

        “We would ask for a funding level to build out the whole thing,” Mr. Jablonski said, adding that the project would require about $58.7 million a year in local funding to complete — the equivalent of about a half-cent increase in the county's sales tax. “I'm going to be out there presenting this plan and gauging the response over the next few weeks.”

        Under Ohio law, the Metro board can place an initiative on the ballot itself without any other approval, but Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin said he was skeptical that any tax increase would pass.

        “People in Cincinnati already pay three-tenths of a percent of their earnings tax toward Metro, and they might not be willing to be double taxed,” Mr. Dowlin said. “And what guarantees do we have that the federal government or the state government will kick in that much?”

        There is pressure to secure some sort of local funding now, however. In its last two reviews of the I-71 project, the Federal Transit Administration graded the plan “not acceptable,” primarily because no local funding had been guaranteed.

        Approval from that agency is required before a plan can be passed on to Congress for possible funding. And Congress is about to take up the reauthorization of the federal transportation appropriations package, a process that takes place about every five years.

        When complete, the rail system would cost $60.8 million a year to operate.

        Several aspects of the plan — including a street car line that would connect downtown Cincinnati with Covington, Newport as well as the University of Cincinnati and hospital areas, could be done by 2005. That time frame also includes the bus plan, which includes proposed new hub transit stations throughout the county.

        The rail system would consist of five different lines that would terminate in Dent, Eastgate, Kings Mill, West Chester, Cold Spring, Florence and at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, with several of the lines overlapping on the same track.

        There are no immediate plans to seek new funds from Kentucky voters, said Mark Donaghy, general manager for the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK). The Kentucky lines would consist of 26.7 miles of light rail and another 4.5 miles of street car. Northern Kentucky's expense is estimated to be about $1.4 billion.

        “We're not even close to making a decision, and have a lot more study to do,” Mr. Donaghy said.

        Critics of light rail say any additional taxes could drive even more residents and businesses out of Hamilton County, and that they remain unconvinced that people would ride such a system.

        “This is big boys playing with electric trains, only instead of their living rooms, they're doing it with taxpayer money in our backyards,” said Paul Naberhaus, a Hyde Park engineer who is a member of the anti-tax group Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes and the co-founder of the Southwest Ohio Regional Drivers' Alliance, a grassroots group interested in transportation issues. “People don't ride the buses now, and no matter what they say, it's still downtown hub oriented. And people are moving away from working downtown.”


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