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Signs Pointing to Better Public Transit

By John Fox · July 2nd, 2008 · Editorial
Cincinnati City Council recently passed a motion to pursue taking over the area's bus system on the Ohio side. The fact that the motion passed unanimously means change is afoot.

Greater Cincinnati has needed a truly regional approach to public transit for a long time. Well, we need a regional approach to a lot of things, but transit is a good place to start.

Cincinnati's bus system, Metro, is run by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), which is run by a nine-member appointed board. Hamilton County picks five of the board members, while the city of Cincinnati is responsible for the other four.

Metro gets roughly half of its annual operating funds from a portion of Cincinnati's earnings tax, which is paid by everyone who works or lives in the city. The rest of the system's income is from fares and federal funds.

So the city of Cincinnati is the only local government to fund the bus system, while it's in the minority on the board that decides how to spend the money. It's easy to see why council members want to change the rules.

It's also easy to see why Hamilton County officials would balk at such a change -- they run the system but don't have to foot the bills -- and why outlying counties might not be interested in contributing funds they currently don't have to.

But what's easiest to see is the brightly lit sign you'll encounter at almost every major intersection in the area: "Regular, $4.14."

Skyrocketing gas prices have forced everyone to confront the uncomfortable reality -- call it the inconvenient truth -- that our car-based culture is in jeopardy. It's finally dawned on people that more interstate lanes, wider streets and additional highway interchanges aren't the only answers anymore.

Of course, some people saw this problem coming a ways back and proposed an integrated public transit system for the region. Called MetroMoves, the 2002 plan included light rail lines in all directions, including into Northern Kentucky, and crosstown bus lines that intersected the rail system and other bus lines at neighborhood transit hubs.

The idea was to begin to build a Greater Cincinnati in which you could live, work and play without a car if you wished. It was an ambitious plan that would have cost $2.6 billion and taken 20 or more years to complete.

A half-cent sales tax for Hamilton County was proposed to pay for the transit system, but voters rejected it. After the defeat, local transportation guru John Schneider wistfully called MetroMoves "a solution looking for a problem."

With gas at $1.40 a gallon in the summer of 2002, local voters didn't think an integrated transit system was needed here. Political leaders weren't ready to lead on the issue when there were so few who wanted to follow.

Council members are ready to lead now, and Cincinnatians are looking for alternatives to $75 fill-ups at the gas pump. The streetcar plan is a good appetizer for a comprehensive public transit approach, with a city-led bus system the meat and potatoes. Let's dig in.

Contact John Fox: jfox@citybeat.com



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