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Sunday, December 14, 2003

Cutting Access balanced needs with funds crunch



By Paul C. Jablonski
Guest columnist

As board members of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority and I listened to customers' comments about proposed changes in Metro and Access service at a public hearing Dec. 2, we were struck with the vital need for transportation options. For many, our service is the only means of transportation available, and changes have a dramatic effect on the lives of our customers.

It's difficult to balance a constrained, tax-supported budget with the very compelling human needs of the community. Faced with reduced revenues, rising costs and a budget deficit in 2004, SORTA has recently proposed changes in fares and services that will affect both Metro and Access customers next year. But the most difficult decisions involved Access service for the disabled.

In compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, SORTA must provide Access service within three-quarters of a mile of operating Metro bus routes. Currently, SORTA's Access service far exceeds what the federal law requires, both in terms of service area and hours. In other words, Access customers have the ability to travel to many more areas in Hamilton County than people who ride regular Metro buses.

Since the ADA went into effect in 1997, the cost to operate Access has doubled. The ADA-mandated portion of the service - about 90 percent or $6.5 million in 2004 - is funded by the city of Cincinnati transit fund.

The remaining 10 percent of Access service is not required by the ADA. Since 1998, this non-ADA service has been funded by a partnership of Hamilton County, Hamilton County Board of MRDD, and Council on Aging at about $300,000 each year. Funding from these sources has not increased much in the past five years, despite increases in ridership and costs. The cost of county non-ADA service in 2004 is projected to be about $550,000.

We understand the financial constraints of our funding partners, but SORTA cannot continue to provide service without adequate funding. To trim costs, we have proposed limiting the non-ADA service to current riders, reducing service hours and trips available, and raising fares.

These changes are not being taken lightly. Before proposing any external changes, SORTA cut internal expenses and jobs by $1.7 million for next year.

Throughout the budget process, our goal has been to minimize the impact on customers and the community. We also have an obligation to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers who fund our service, and we must take reasonable actions to balance our 2004 budget.

To our Access customers, their families and other supporters, we are truly sorry to have to make these changes.

But, in the absence of full funding, we must reduce the costs by changing the service next year. We will continue to seek the funding needed for this service and explore other options to continue service after 2004.

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Paul C. Jablonski is chief executive officer and general manager of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which provides about 23 million rides a year to Metro and Access customers.




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