Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Bus budget has $1 base fare

City Council still must OK board's increases

By Gregory Korte
Enquirer staff writer

Cincinnati's bus system adopted a 2005 budget Tuesday that includes a base fare increase of nearly 54 percent, but the proposal already faces some opposition from City Council.

Metro's weekday, non-rush-hour base fare in Cincinnati, now at 65 cents, has not increased since 1993. Under the new fare structure, the base fare would be $1 regardless of the time or day. Base fares for seniors and children would rise from 40 cents to 50 cents.

City Council, which subsidizes the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority through a 0.3 percent earnings tax, must approve its annual budget.

Finance Committee Chairman John Cranley called the proposed increases "a tax on the poor."

"Before we raise fares on the working poor in the city, we ought to get a fair share from the suburban jurisdictions," he said.

SORTA managers said they've already cut overhead and sought greater reimbursements from Clermont, Butler and Warren counties. They said they had no choice but to raise fares.

The bus system is suffering from flat city earnings taxes, increased fuel prices and declining ridership - down 10 percent over five years, to 23 million trips a year.

The board has ruled out alternatives to higher fare: cuts in service, a tax increase or huge concessions from its unions.

"There are only a few variables we can manipulate in order to balance the budget," said General Manager Mike Setzer.

But transit board member Thomas A. Luken forced a fractious 75-minute debate on his proposals for other cost-cutting measures, including cuts in advertising and other administrative expenses.

Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken appointed his father to the board to keep a watch on the agency's spending, and activities like "Wild Wacky Wednesdays" - a promotion in which bus drivers wore Hawaiian shirts and gave out flowers in an attempt to boost ridership - have been a particular point of contention for the elder Luken.

Board Chairman Benjamin Gettler said advertising has already been curtailed, and noted that Luken's suggested cuts would result in an additional $800,000 in savings - far less than the $2.3 million that a fare increase is expected to generate.

Luken also complained that there was only four days' notice of the proposed fare increases before Tuesday's vote.

Luken's presence has led to contentious debates on the transit board over the last year.

Another mayoral appointee, Lamont Taylor, accused Luken on Tuesday of attempting to micromanage the bus system.

In an apparent attempt to to rein in Luken, in Luken, the board also adopted a policy forbidding individual members from speaking for the board.

"You're obviously directing this at me because I'm the only one who says anything," Luken said.

Though the board approved the fare increases 6-2, it will hold a public hearing on the $94.5 million budget 3:30 p.m. Nov. 23 at the Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center.


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