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New Sales Tax Will Fuel Transit Modernization in Cincinnati

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) is set to receive millions of dollars in new annual funding, following the successful passage of a countywide sales tax dedicated to transit and transportation.

Amid nationwide disruptions to public transit brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, at least one Midwest agency is moving forward with plans for expanded service and technology upgrades, fueled by new revenue.

Voters in Cincinnati approved a new 0.8-cent sales tax in April — in the middle of the pandemic — to provide some $100 million a year for transit for projects and upgrades. The tax is set to generate another $30 million for other transportation related projects. It’s not yet clear how deeply those estimates will have to be dialed down, due to the significant economic downturn brought on by the novel coronavirus crisis.

“We really made the case for showing how having a healthy and robust public transportation [system] makes our city more attractive and competitive. It helps to retain talent in the workforce. It helps grow our place in the city, and in the country,” said Brandy L. Jones, vice president of external affairs for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA).

Leading up to the vote, SORTA held dozens of public meetings with residents, business groups and others across Hamilton County, going back to 2015, to learn from the community how it wanted the region’s bus system to modernize and better serve today's needs. Those meetings generated the Reinventing Metro Plan, the first major revisioning of public transit in southwest Ohio in 50 years.

“I think that speaks volumes for the fact that the community truly believes that now is the right time to invest and grow our service,” Jones said of the vote, which squeaked by with a less than 1 percent margin.

Apart from generating new sales tax revenue for SORTA, the vote restructured some of the funding mechanisms, so that SORTA’s net increase in funding will likely be about $50 million a year. That funding will allow for the system upgrades, set to be phased in over the cou the next six years.

Riders can expect increased bus frequency, increased service on nights and weekends, with six routes introducing 24-hour service, which did not previously exist. Two bus-rapid-transit routes are also being planned. 

Riders can expect additional amenities, like additional park-and-rides, transit centers, bus shelters, real-time communications alerting riders of bus statuses.

“And this will allow us to put more investment into technology,” Jones offered. “So, how do we improve our app? How do we improve our real-time tracking? On the internal side, this will allow us to update some of our aging infrastructure and our aging technology.”

The Reinventing Metro Plan’s modernization comes as transit agencies across the nation are navigating an unfamiliar terrain reshaped by sharp declines in ridership resulting from the widespread stay-at-home orders that are just now being relaxed. During the pandemic, ridership declined 73 percent nationwide, with fare revenue falling 86 percent, according to the American Public Transportation Association. In Cincinnati, ridership fell about 70 percent, said Jones, after trending up in the beginning of the year.

Aside from confronting new safety measures to keep both riders and operators safe from the spread of COVID-19 — an essential step in reassuring riders that transit is safe — agencies must confront the previously unimaginable possibility that many commuters may not return to downtown offices, and simply continue to work from home. 

“The culture of work itself is being completely upended. Working from home, which was taboo before, was very difficult, now is becoming the norm,” said Tim Papandreou, founder of Emerging Transport Advisors, a transportation consulting firm in San Francisco, during a recent Transportation Research Board mobility forum, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“I don’t think we’re going to go back to where we were two months ago with white collar workers going into downtown offices every day,” echoed Steve Shladover, a research engineer at University of California, Berkeley, in his comments during the same forum last month. “We’re going to have significant reductions in that kind of travel pattern. Which has profound implications for transit systems, and also for the highway networks, and the parking facilities that have been built up around that.”

SORTA, in Cincinnati, scaled back service during the COVID-19 crisis, installed protective barriers for operators, stepped up disinfecting and cleaning regimes, and plans to resume full service by the end of the month, Jones said. 

However, she concedes travel and commuter patterns may be rapidly shifting and the transit system will have to respond accordingly. But the new funding and system remake is set to put the region on modern transportation footing, ready to serve more residents in a changing world.

“I think we’re no different than other systems around the country that has had to adapt,” said Jones.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.