As it commemorates its 40th anniversary, Greater Cincinnati’s bus service is making changes it hopes will improve a system that has dealt with funding shortfalls and service cuts in the past few years.
Metro, which began operation in 1973 and is overseen by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, provides daily service mostly in Cincinnati and other parts of Hamilton County. Its commuter routes extend into Clermont, Warren and Butler counties.
Metro’s latest project is a new limited-stop, weekday bus service called Metro*Plus, which Metro spokesperson Jill Dunne describes as a first step toward bus rapid transit (BRT), a system that makes fewer stops than conventional routes and uses traffic signal priority and bus-only lanes.
BRT has been adopted around the globe since the idea was first tried in Brazil. The BRT system in Bogota, Colombia was so efficient that it catapulted the city’s transit network to global fame.
But Metro isn’t embracing BRT all at once, instead calling Metro*Plus “a forerunner to true BRT service.” Metro*Plus won’t use the bus-only lanes that are part of true BRT, but it will reduce the amount of stops made in comparison to traditional bus routes.
Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls calls Metro*Plus a “baby step” to BRT, which she says should ideally be part of a transit system that also includes traditional bus services, a local streetcar and a countywide light rail system.
The Metro*Plus line, which opened Aug. 19 and is free of charge through Aug. 23, will connect some of Metro’s busiest service areas: Kenwood and Blue Ash; Xavier University; the uptown area, which includes the University of Cincinnati and surrounding hospitals; and downtown Cincinnati.
The new service is mostly federally funded. The 10 Metro*Plus buses, which should last 12 years, cost about $4.4 million and annual operation is estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million.
If the system is well received, it could become part of a wider step into BRT.
“We’re really going to have to see how it goes, and we’ll have to look at funding options down the road if we were to expand,” Dunne says
Specifically, Metro says it would apply for federal grants to finance an expansion into BRT.
That financing might need to add up to hundreds of millions of dollars — an amount that could raise doubts if local and county taxpayers are also asked to pitch in.
A study released in November 2012 at the 12th annual National Light Rail Transit Conference in Salt Lake City found that BRT can cost more than light rail as the project’s scope increases. The study found the most substantial BRT installations cost $451.7 million per mile, while comparable light rail projects ended up at $79.8 million per mile. Smaller BRT installations only cost $30.8 million per mile, in comparison to $51.8 million per mile for similar light rail projects. The study also found light rail projects met ridership targets more than twice as often as BRT.
Still, researchers only looked at true BRT, which involves reworking roads to build bus-only lanes, instead of “BRT lite,” which is effectively what Metro*Plus is doing for now by keeping buses in mixed-traffic roads but limiting the amount of stops.
Metro*Plus is one of the few times in recent history Metro has been able to expand its services. In the past few years, expenses have risen in transportation systems around the country and the Great Recession has reduced revenues.
Metro has responded to the challenges by pursuing some fare increases and cuts. In 2009, City Council approved a fare hike of 25 cents to $1.75 within Cincinnati, and Metro cut services by roughly 12 percent.
On Aug. 18, Metro made more additions and cuts to routes.
“We’re listening to what our customers want, and we’re always trying to make improvements based on the needs of the community,” Dunne says, explaining that the decisions were based on months of surveys, focus groups, outreach and ridership data.
Some routes were added, with Mercy Health West Hospital in particular getting a new stop. Routes were also eliminated in various areas, but Metro says that all but three cut routes will have readily available alternatives, with Metro*Plus helping fill new gaps in some cases.
Metro is making the changes as it reaches the limits of its budget. About two-thirds of the bus service’s revenue comes from local, state and federal taxes, while the rest comes from fares paid by customers, according to Metro.
One particular sticking point is local taxes: When Metro was first established, the intent was that the city and county would help fund it. Cincinnati has lived up to the expectation, with 0.3 percent of the city’s earnings tax flowing to Metro. But Hamilton County voters have repeatedly rejected tax measures that would carry funding on the county’s end.
Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann acknowledges the Board of Commissioners could in theory approve a tax hike to fund Metro, but he says it’s not a realistic priority given the county’s budget challenges — a June memo estimated a $17.8 million gap for 2014 — and commissioners’ unwillingness to raise taxes in a recovering economy.
Dunne says Metro deals with the funding discrepancy by charging higher fares outside of Cincinnati. That’s why the typical fare is $1.75 in Cincinnati but $2.65 and higher outside city limits.
On Aug. 15, Metro celebrated its 40th anniversary with a birthday party involving prizes, music from 1973 and even a vow renewal. The couple who renewed their vows — Rex and Anita Settlemoir — met on a Metro bus in 1975 and have now been married for 37 years. After agreeing to tie their vow renewal to the Metro celebration, a Metro*Plus bus picked up the couple and took them to Fountain Square, where the ceremony took place.
“I got a little teary-eyed as I listened to them give their vows because they’re still very much in love,” Dunne says. “It’s so wonderful that Metro was a part of that story.” ©