The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), the government board that operates the local Metro bus service, has penned a letter to Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory and members of Cincinnati City Council about a budget decision that they say violates a 38-year funding contract between the two parties.
The decision, made late last month by City Council, transfers more than $2.4 million in dedicated public transit account funding to pay utility costs for street lights. SORTA also faces a net reduction of $1 million in funding in this year's City budget – if its 2011 earnings tax projections pan out.
City funding represents nearly one-half of the board's operating budget, approximately $85.5 million this year.
Sean Rugless, who took over as chairman of the SORTA board last October, believes that any loss of revenue could affect individuals' access to employment, health care, and education. A 2009 budget shortfall forced SORTA to reduce Metro service by 12 percent, alter its Access service for people with disabilities, increase fares, and lay off employees.
"The city's decision to use dedicated transit funding to pay for a shortfall in its general city budget is a direct violation of the contract between our two organizations," he said. "We are sympathetic to the city's budget dilemma, but we have a responsibility to maintain public transit service for the community."
SORTA also considers the move a "dangerous precedent", an example of bad public policy that could lessen the region's future transportation options. The board has directed Metro staff to evaluate all of its options, both operational and legal.
Throughout the life of the contract, multiple legal opinions from City attorneys have protected the transit fund from being used for non-transit purposes, according to SORTA.
In 1972, Cincinnati voters approved a ballot measure allocating three-tenths of one percent of the City's earnings tax to public transit, a service that had previously been privately-owned.
Attempts to broaden the funding pot for SORTA by bringing more suburban governments into the fold, including then-Councilmember John Cranley's motion to create the Regional Transportation Act of 2008, so far have been unsuccessful.
Previous reading on BC:
Metro wins $1.9M for hybrid buses (6/10/10)
Metro honored for safety, plans new communications system (6/8/10)
Tell your Metro story, win free bus rides for a year (6/1/10)
Metro, TANK to offer free rides on Bike to Work Day (5/11/10)
Cranley to introduce Regional Transportation Act (6/17/08)