Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Issue 7: Light rail


Metro plan hits wall of resistance

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hamilton County voters Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a proposed sales-tax increase, ending a decade-long effort to bring light rail and improved mass transit to the area.

Issue 7, which would have raised the county sales-tax rate by a half-cent to help pay for a $2.7 billion transportation plan put forth by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, lost by a ratio of more than 2-to-1.

WHAT'S NEXT?
It is unclear whether the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority will try again to raise local funding for the project.

Transit authority officials said they tried for the tax at this time because Congress is reauthorizing its transportation funding law next year, a process that takes place every five years. They argued if Cincinnati did not get in line now, it would have to wait at least five years for another chance, meaning another shot at the tax could be possible next spring.

Still, Metro officials said it was premature to think about whether to pursue the issue.

And if the decision were made to try again, it would raise the question as to where support would come from. The pro-transit campaign raised more than $600,000 this time around, getting strong support from the Cincinnati business community.

The centerpiece of that MetroMoves plan, and the cause of most of the controversy, was a 60-mile, $2.6 billion light-rail system that would have included five lines through the county.

"What is clear in this is that the supporters of Issue 7 seriously underestimated the ability of Hamilton County voters to assess just how risky this plan was," said Stephan Louis, a Pleasant Ridge medical-supplies salesman who led the campaign against Issue 7.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, 161,166 votes, or 68.4 percent, were against the tax and 96,469 voters, or 31.6 percent, said yes - a difference of 64,697 votes.

But despite the landslide rejection, officials of Metro - which runs the county's bus system - said they were committed to the plan and to the concept of light rail, although they said no decisions had been made about what would happen next.

"If you look back 3-4 years ago, the issue of expanded transportation or the new technology of light rail was not in anybody's thoughts," said Metro general manager and chief executive officer Paul Jablonski.

"At some point in the future, the plan will become reality, and it's just a matter of when. The time is obviously not today, though."

Before the election, transit officials said they expected the sales-tax hike to raise about $60 million and pay for about 25 percent of the plan. The plan then called for the federal government to cover half the cost and the state to cover 25 percent.

The proposal includes both the light-rail system, and more than $100 million in improvements and expansions to the present bus system.

Area transportation planners hoped that, if built, the Hamilton County system would have been the backbone of a regional rail plan that could extend into Warren, Butler and Clermont counties and into Northern Kentucky's three counties - Campbell, Kenton and Boone.

During a contentious campaign that saw pro-transit advocates far outspent anti-transit forces, which included many conservative elected officials, local transit officials said the only thing keeping light rail from coming to the area was the lack of a local funding source.

They pointed to their last proposal to the federal government for a light-rail line along Interstate 71, which received a passing grade on all aspects of the plan except local funding from the Federal Transit Administration.

That forced the agency to give a "not recommended" rating overall.

A project must be recommended by the federal agency before it is taken to Congress for funding.

Local transit officials have said that since Congress is renewing a five-year transportation authorization bill next year, this is the time to secure that local funding to show the area is serious about improving mass transit, lowering congestion and improving air quality.

Advocates have spent more than $500,000 on their campaign, saying the plan would also boost area development as well as provide for better transportation for the physically and financially challenged.

Yet there was a very vocal campaign against the issue. Several area elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, lined up against Issue 7.

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These opponents argue that light rail would not be effective in reducing traffic and air pollution, and that the costs of such a system would quickly exceed the $2.6 billion figure. Both sides had appeared at numerous public debates in the weeks leading up to Election Day, accusing each other of distorting the same set of facts to their own advantage and repeatedly making the same arguments.

Transit authority chairman Peter D. Gomsak Jr. said the board had not made any decision about the next step for the MetroMoves plan beyond Tuesday's vote, but said that "we all remain very committed to the plan and its value to the community."

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com



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