Tuesday, August 20, 2002

MetroMoves: What will it mean to area?

        Officials with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority today could recommend to the agency's board of directors that a sales tax levy be placed on the November ballot to pay for the recently unveiled MetroMoves plan that includes a light rail system and improved bus service.

        The board is expected to vote on the proposal, meaning Hamilton County voters could be given the choice in November.

        Here are some commonly asked questions about the issue.

        What is MetroMoves and what does it include?

        MetroMoves is the long-range strategic plan put together by Metro, the bus service. It includes a major expansion of the city's bus service that would create more east-west lines.

        It also includes a light rail plan that would include five lines that would run east-west from western Hamilton County to the Eastgate area and along Interstates 71 and 75, and a street car line from downtown along Vine Street through Over-the-Rhine to the University of Cincinnati and Mount Auburn, including the city's hospital district. The plan calls for the rail system to be built over 30 years, with a line connecting downtown to Blue Ash along I-71 to be built first.

        How much will it cost, and who will pay for it?

        The current estimate for the Hamilton County portion of the light rail system is $2.6 billion — the bus improvements would cost $100 million.

        The long-term light rail plan includes two lines into Northern Kentucky, and extensions of the two northern lines into Butler and Warren counties.

        The estimated total for the entire system is more than $4 billion.

        Metro officials say they are counting on the federal government to pay for half, with that money primarily coming from federal gasoline excise taxes. They are also counting on 25 percent of the total from the state, although state officials have said that funds at that level could be scarce, with local funding covering the final 25 percent.

        What are the options for the local share?

        The SORTA board has the authority to issue bonds or seek tax increases by election. Agency officials have previously said that they are considering a half-cent increase to the Hamilton County sales tax (currently 6 percent) to cover the local portion of the total.

        The board could put two initiatives on the ballot — one for light rail and one for the bus improvements — but Metro officials have previously said that the preferred option is to do it in one.

        Another possibility is that the agency could change the way it generates local revenue (Metro gets three-tenths of 1 percent of the 2.1 percent Cincinnati earnings tax levied on each wage-earner in the city.) Metro could seek more than a half-cent to eliminate that tax and pay for MetroMoves and its annual operations.

        Why is the transit board considering this now?

        The only thing preventing the light rail project from being approved by the Federal Transit Administration is a lack of local funding. Approval from the FTA is necessary before Congress can appropriate money for any transit project.

        Congress is about to begin deliberating the reauthorization of the main law that funds major transportation projects nationally, and this appropriation law is only renewed about every five years or so.

        So if a local funding source were not secured in time for this round of federal money, Metro officials have said, then the project would probably have to wait another five years or so.

— James Pilcher



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