Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Light-rail planners hope for bandwagon

Transit board set to seek vote on county sales-tax increase

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

        The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority board this afternoon is poised to ask Hamilton County voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for a proposed $2.6 billion light-rail system. The additional tax money also would pay for improvements to the Tristate's largest public bus service.

        Yet once the transit board's vote is taken today, how light-rail advocates will proceed isn't certain.

    The board of the directors for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority is appointed by the Hamilton County Commission. The mayor of Cincinnati, however, recommends four of the nine members of the board to City Council, which approves the recommendations and passes them onto the county.
    Here are the members of the board:
Peter D. Gomsak Jr., chairman
    Appointed by Hamilton County
    Appointed: 9/26/90
    Term expires: 10/01/02
    Background: Certified public accountant who retired in 1999 from PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. Lives in Indian Hill.
Timothy R. Williams, vice chairman
    Appointed by Hamilton County after being recommended by Cincinnati
    Appointed: 1/06/93
    Term expires: 10/01/04
    Background: A staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Lives in Finneytown.
Edward J. Babbitt
    Appointed by Hamilton County.
    Appointed: 9/21/94
    Term expires: 10/01/03
    Background: Legislative counsel for the Western-Southern Life Insurance Co. He previously served in a variety of federal transportation positions. Lives in Anderson Township.
Martini (Marty) R. Dunn
    Appointed by Hamilton County after recommendation by Cincinnati
    Appointed: 11/14/01
    Term expires:10/01/03
    Background: A partner with the law firm Baker & Hostetler LLP. Lives in Mason.
Richard M. Haines
    Appointed by Hamilton County
    Appointed: 11/12/92
    Term expires: 10/01/04
    Background: A partner at the law firm Kohnen & Patton, LLP. Lives in Hyde Park.
Robert L. Harris
    Appointed by Hamilton County after recommendation by Cincinnati
    Appointed: 11/12/97
    Term expires:10/01/03
    Background: Program associate for the National Conference for Community and Justice; also a visual artist. Lives in Walnut Hills.
Diane F. Price
    Appointed by Hamilton County
    Appointed: 2/05/86
    Term expires: 10/01/03
    Background: A former teacher, who has previously served as SORTA president and vice president. Lives in Westwood.
Donald L. Schott
    Appointed by Hamilton County
    Appointed: 2/05/92
    Term expires: 10/01/02
    Background: A retired Hamilton County common pleas judge. Lives in Green Township.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Stivers
    Appointed by Hamilton County after recommendation by Cincinnati
    Appointed: 12/08/99
    Term expires: 10/01/02
    Background: Currently establishing Stivers, a leadership and coaching business, after recently retiring from Procter & Gamble, where she was vice president of product supply for the Global Health Care Business Unit. Lives in Indian Hill.
        “There probably is a need to develop the (political) infrastructure a little bit,” said board Chairman Peter D. Gomsak, Jr., who Monday said he expected the board to approve the proposed tax increase to pay for the MetroMoves plan. “But I feel through all the feedback we've solicited that the will is there to get this done.”

        Officials with Metro, which operates the city's bus service and is overseen by SORTA, are precluded from campaigning for a tax issue on company time or from using agency money for such a campaign. The agency has run TV and radio ads about MetroMoves, but say the spots were part of a public awareness campaign and were not connected with a tax levy campaign.

        So a sales tax drive would mean a separate campaign committee would need to be assembled, and campaign dollars raised — a process that one local political observer says should have started much sooner than this. The deadline for putting tax levies on the November ballot is Thursday.

        “If they hired me to run their campaign, I would already be doing market surveys,” said Gene Beaupre, a Xavier University urban affairs professor who has been involved with local levy campaigns in the past. “You have to identify a voter base and then go from there. And they haven't given themselves much time; and when you have less time, you need more money.”

        Metro general manager and chief executive officer Paul Jablonski was unavailable for comment Monday, with agency officials saying they were preparing for today's meeting.

        But Mr. Jablonski has said that many community and business leaders have expressed support for the effort, as compared to last August when he decided not to recommend going for a light-rail tax.

        In addition, Mr. Jablonski has said that those community and business leaders would express their support publicly this time

        So far, three such officials have endorsed the project: Blue Chip Enterprises chief executive officer Ross Love, also the co-chairman of the Cincinnati CAN commission on race relations; Cincinnati State Technical and Community College President Ron Wright; and Jim Anderson, president and chief executive officer for Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

        “My hope is that enough people understand the dynamics and the impact of this system that they stand up to the obvious criticism from the old guard in Cincinnati and say that that we need this or we will die as viable city,” Dr. Wright said.

        Mr. Anderson acknowledged that those that have come forth to support the effort aren't “the meat of the lineup,” but Mr. Gomsak said that other well-known names are waiting until the initiative is placed on the ballot before they put their names and money behind the project.

        A critic of the light-rail initiative says that a similar effort to organize opposition to the proposed tax is already under way. Pleasant Ridge medical supplies salesman Stephan Louis, also chairman of the Alternative to Light Rail Transit opposition group, would not offer specifics on membership or dollars collected.

        “This is an issue that goes beyond just light rail,” Mr. Louis said.

        “This is a nonelected governmental agency trying to tell us how to behave and live and where to live.”

        John Schneider, a downtown developer and light-rail advocate, said that organizing efforts are under way.

        He declined, however, to give specifics on how many people have signed up or how much money has been collected. He also said the Alliance for Regional Transit, which he leads, would not be used as a campaign committee.

        “I think this is very winnable,” said Mr. Gomsak, who as an unpaid board member could campaign for a levy, although he says he has not gotten involved with that aspect of the issue. “The public understands this much better than a year ago, although I will admit it will be a tough task.”

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MetroMoves: What will it mean to area?


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