Monday, July 29, 2002

Metro: Plan getting positive feedback

Public response could factor in levy decision

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As several deadlines loom, Metro officials say they are not quite ready to decide whether to seek a tax increase on the November ballot to help pay for its revamped vision of public transit, which includes light rail. But after one of the region's most intensive public outreach programs in recent memory, they say they are getting there, and they like what they are hearing.

        “I think we have set a new standard for public involvement with this entire process,” said Paul Jablonski, Metro's chief executive officer and general manager. “And I have been very surprised and happy as I've walked out of the meetings with people I respect a great deal, and they say things like they know the value of this and this is something that the community needs.”

        The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which runs Metro, the city's bus system, has until Aug. 22 to decide whether to put a tax levy on the November ballot.

        Metro officials are considering a half-cent sales tax increase to pay 25 percent of their MetroMoves plan that includes a regional light rail system, a renovation and widening of the existing bus network, and has an overall price tag of $2.7 billion.

        That plan, which cost $1.3 million to create, was unveiled just five weeks ago. Since then, Metro officials have been conducting apublic awareness campaign, going even further than they did last year when they presented the first version of the plan.

        Mr. Jablonski said he has not made a decision whether to recommend such a tax increase to the SORTA board, which is scheduled to meet Aug. 13, stressing that it would be the nine-member board's decision. Officials say that if a local funding source is not found soon, the area could miss out on federal funds that could pay for half the project for at least another five years.

        He added that the current public effort, which includes a $290,000 ad and public relations campaign, 67 private meetings with area business, political and business leaders, and 39 open houses at Hamilton County libraries, is part of an educational campaign as well as a way to garner feedback about the plan.

        Mr. Jablonski said most of the feedback, at least in his private sessions, has been extremely positive.

        “We've only had one person who said that we shouldn't do this,” said Mr. Jablonski, who would not divulge with whom he had met, saying he promised confidentiality “so people could be candid.”

        In addition, 96 percent of those who filled out unscientific Metro-conducted surveys said that it was important for the city to have a comprehensive transportation system, including street cars, light rail and expanded bus service.

        “A lot of people are already educated about this to some degree, because it has been elevated into the public debate,” said Peter D. Gomsak Jr., chairman of the SORTA board. “And when it comes to giving feedback, it's been so far, so good.”

        Still, there has been some criticism of not only the plan, but of the process. Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken earlier this month accused Metro officials of conducting a de facto levy campaign with public money, while other critics have said that transit officials are conducting their fact-finding in such a way to get the results they want.

        Mr. Jablonski and Mr. Gomsak admitted that it was difficult to determine how much negative response was truly in the community. They also said it was one thing to get positive feedback from all types of residents, and quite another to figure out what likely voters were saying about the plan.

        One such voter, Paul Bluestein of Amberley Village, said at a recent open house that he wants to know a lot more before he gives his approval to a higher sales tax.

        He wasn't able to get his questions answered at the library event in Pleasant Ridge last week, because of delays caused when the 23-year-old bus used to display the plan broke down.

        “I came here to get information, and I am very curious about how they intend to sell it,” said Mr. Bluestein, a retired engineer.

        “I can see the problems they are talking about, but I'm not going to be here when it eventually happens. So they have to convince me as to how they are going to pay for it, and where are they going to put the cars of the people who have to drive to the transit stations?”


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