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Transportation advocates say SORTA levy could help Cincinnati's poverty rate



CINCINNATI (WKRC) - In eight weeks, Hamilton County voters will decide on the future of the Metro bus system. It involves a 0.8-percent sales tax levy called Issue 7 that could fund new bus routes and 24-hour services. Anti-poverty advocates say giving the levy the green light could help reduce poverty across Hamilton County.

When it comes to Cincinnati’s Metro bus system, some riders make it plain that Metro could use some work.

"A lot of old buses and they terrible," said bus rider Lisa Day.

But to make improvements, Metro needs some money. That’s why the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) is asking voters to approve a tax levy in March to improve and expand bus service.

“The metro system is essentially set up the way it was when it was made public in 1973,” said Kreg Keesee, chair of the SORTA Board of Trustees.

Keesee says with more and more jobs moving outside of the I-275 loop, Hamilton County needs an updated system.

"That system over time has not kept up with the changes in the community, so it was built when jobs were downtown and people lived in the suburbs and the jobs were 8-5,” said Keesee.

The Metro bus routes reflect that with many running north to south, heading downtown.

"The system when it was set up back in the '70s was going from the suburbs, which would be primarily north going down, a little bit east to west, but everything converged downtown because folks weren't trying to get east and west like they do today,” said Keesee.

Keesee says if the levy is passed, you'll see more east to west routes and city to suburbs routes to cut down on commute times.

“So today, if it would take me more than an hour for that commute, in the future it would take less than 30 minutes,” said Keesee.

Metro also wants to add eight new bus routes while adding 24-hour service to six other routes. The levy would also go to fleet additions and upgrades. Riders could also see service every 20 minutes on major routes every day. These upgrades could give riders what they desire.

“We need more nice buses. Like I just seen a bus pull up. It had thick seats, it was clean but I only seen one of them buses like every blue moon,” said Day.

Beyond comfort and convenience, Keesee believes the levy could help the regional economy.

“This will help us reach about 350,000 jobs through the bus system, which will add 20,000 where you can't reach them at all and then many because we can't get to them today, so the commuting time to reach jobs will be reduced greatly. People will have more opportunity to go after jobs as a result,” said Keesee.

Keesee says those opportunities and reduced commute times could make a big impact on Cincinnati’s poverty rate.

"Life depends on your ability to get to jobs, education, health care, school, all those things. The ability to commute in 15 minutes instead of 45 minutes, it's really a big deal for folks,” said Keesee.

Metro has partnered with community engagement group Cohear to get input on the bus system's reinvention.

Jon Moore is on the Bus Rider Advisory Council.

“When I think about a stagnating bus system, I think about a stagnating city,” said Moore.

Moore rides the bus to work every day from Norwood to Mount Saint Joseph. He knows firsthand how transportation is connected to opportunity.

“I think a person's ability to get around the city is directly tied to their ability to provide for their family, so the more mobility people have, the more economic prosperity people can have,” said Moore.

Keesee and the SORTA board hope come March, more voters can make that connection and give Metro a boost.

“There are jobs open, but people can't get to them. It will give people the ability to get to bigger and better jobs and that will help everyone,” said Keesee.

Twenty-five percent of the levy would also go to infrastructure projects across Hamilton County. Keesee says that money could help fix the Western Hills Viaduct and improve traffic.

Voters will make their decision on March 17. The SORTA chair says he's confident the levy will pass, but if it doesn't, SORTA will look at short-term funding models while continuing discussions with the community.

Local 12 will bring you additional reporting on this topic before the March 17 election.

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