Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Metro ballot issue asks for boost in sales tax

By James Pilcher,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For the first time in 22 years, Hamilton County voters will be asked to tax themselves to finance the Tristate's largest public transit agency. The Nov. 5 vote, which is likely to trigger a sharp debate over traffic and air pollution, could radically reshape transportation here by adding a light-rail system.

        The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority's board of directors voted 9-0 Tuesday to put a half-cent Hamilton County sales tax increase on the fall ballot.

How the light rail system would work.
        The tax hike would pay the local contribution toward the $2.7 billion MetroMoves plan, which includes other major transit improvements.

        Metro general manager and chief executive officer Paul Jablonski warned the board before it voted that the hard part of convincing voters of the need for the expansion — and persuading them to agree to the tax — was still to come.

        “You're going to hear that for this amount of money, we could buy everybody in the city a new Audi,” Mr. Jablonski said. “But this is still the right thing to do.”

        Area officials and political experts agreed a new transit tax would be a hard sell.

        That's because it comes relatively soon after a 1996 stadium initiative that raised the county sales tax by a half-cent — and the ill-will created toward that project by multimillion-dollar cost overruns at Paul Brown Stadium.

        The proposal also will be on the ballot with several other tax initiatives, including a $480 million Cincinnati Public Schools bond issue to help repair or replace 66 buildings.

        “They're going to have to draw a constituency from both the city and the county, and it is going to be hard to create a voter base from such a disparate group,” said Gene Beaupre, who teaches urban administration and campaign politics at Xavier University and who has previously run levy campaigns. “And then you need to reach the swing voters, and who knows who they might be at this point.

        “There are so many different arguments for and against this thing that it's going to be difficult to sell it to people on a gut level, which is what it will take to overcome past history.”

        The board also chose to keep its current operational funding in place, with any new funds to pay only for MetroMoves construction and operation.

        Metro receives 0.3 percentage points of Cincinnati's 2.1 percent city earnings tax on whoever works or lives inside the city. If Metro's tax hike is approved, Hamilton County's sales tax would rise to 6.5 percent.

        The final version of MetroMoves, unveiled in late June, includes a five-line, 65-mile light rail system that would be built over 30 years, with a route extending from Blue Ash to downtown along Interstate 71 slated to be built first. It also includes a streetcar line between downtown and the University of Cincinnati/Pill Hill area, and a $100 million restructuring of the bus service to include more cross-town routes and transit hubs throughout the city and county.

        While the proposal also includes extensions into Butler, Warren and Clermont counties in Ohio and two lines into Northern Kentucky (one along I-71/75 and another along I-471), those lines would not be funded by the proposed tax hike. It would be up to those individual counties to someday join the system.

        The proposed sales tax hike would raise about $61 million annually beginning in January 2003, enough to cover the local share of construction and operations.

        Metro officials are counting on federal funds to cover half the cost of the light rail system, and on state funds for another 25 percent.

        If approved by voters, the sales tax hike would finance the first major renovation and improvement to Metro, the county bus service, since it was created in 1972.

        The proposal is the first time since 1980 that the transit authority has gone to the public for more money. Only one of its previous three attempts was successful — the 1972 vote in Cincinnati that approved the current earnings tax.

        The agency failed in 1979 and again in 1980 to get its primary funding converted from the earnings tax to a sales tax and expand its route structure.

        Opponents of the proposal vowed to fight the issue, although they said they weren't to discuss specifics on how much money they have raised.

        “We'll compare it to getting a shiny ... beautiful Mercedes Benz and then seeing the bill for buying it, maintaining it and having only one person riding in it,” said Stephan Louis, a Pleasant Ridge medical supplies salesman and chairman of the main opposition group, Alternatives to Light Rail Transit.

        Metro officials, who will have to rely on private citizens to conduct any outside levy campaign, acknowledge that they're in for a fight. One problem is that few elected officials in the area have stood up in favor of it, with far more voicing opposition to it, including Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin. The cities of Deer Park and Norwood also have rejected the concept in separate resolutions.

        Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken has also been critical of Metro's ad campaign, saying the spots were an illegal use of public funds for a potential levy campaign. But Mr. Luken has stopped short of criticizing the MetroMoves plan, and said Monday he wanted to study the proposal further.

        “We feel that we have people who are ready to come out publicly to help us,” said transit board chairman Peter D. Gomsak Jr., declining to offer specific names.

        Mr. Gomsak also denied that the transit board — which includes city and county representatives — expects to lose the ballot. In other cities, transit officials have taken two or more proposals to voters before finally gaining approval.

        Mr. Gomsak said that if local funding is not secured by early next year, the Tristate could lose out on federal funds for five years or more.

        “This is not just some trial balloon,” he said.


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