MetroMoves: A Decade Later

The election held earlier this month marked the 10-year anniversary of MetroMoves, the Hamilton County ballot issue that would have more than doubled public support for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA). Specifically, a half-cent sales tax would have raised approximately $60 million annually, permitting a dramatic expansion of Metro’s bus service throughout Hamilton County and construction and operation of a 60-mile, $2.7 billion streetcar and light rail network.

MetroMoves was SORTA’s third attempt to fund countywide transit service – sales tax ballot issues also failed in 1979 and 1980.

The 2002 MetroMoves plan called for five light rail lines, modern streetcars, and an overhauled regional bus system. Image provided.

Bus System Expansion
According to John Schneider, who chaired the MetroMoves campaign, SORTA planned to expand bus service immediately after collection of the tax began. In 2003 Metro’s schedule would have been reworked with more frequent service on every existing bus line, including more late night and weekend service. By 2004, with the arrival of newly purchased buses, Metro planned to link a dozen new suburban transit hubs with new cross-town bus routes.

The Glenway Crossing Transit Center, which opened in early 2012, is an example of the sort of suburban bus hubs planned as part of MetroMoves. The 38X bus, which began service when the transit center opened, is an example of the sort of new routes that MetroMoves would have funded.

Modern Streetcars & Light Rail Lines
In 2003 design work would have begun on a modern streetcar line and the first of five light rail lines. The streetcar line was planned to follow a route nearly identical to the line currently under construction in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine. The modern streetcar line was planned to have traveled up the Vine Street hill to the University of Cincinnati, then turn east on Martin Luther King Drive, cross I-71, and meet a light rail line on Gilbert Avenue.

Construction would have begun in 2004 and operation would have begun by 2006 or 2007.

The start date for light rail construction was less certain because the MetroMoves tax revenue was to be used as the local contribution for a large Federal Transit Administration (FTA) match. This process became standard practice in cities throughout the country since federal matching began in the early 1970s.

Modern streetcars, similar to those used in Portland, OR, could have been in service as early as 2005 had Hamilton County voters approved MetroMoves in 2002. Photograph provided by John Scheinder.

The first light rail line to be built was the system’s “trunk”, a line connecting Downtown and Xavier University on Gilbert Avenue and Montgomery Road. At Xavier, three suburban light rail lines were planned to converge on a trio of abandoned or lightly used freight railroad right-of-ways.

The first to be built would have been the northeast line through Norwood to Pleasant Ridge and Blue Ash. It was expected that the second line would be one incorporated into a rebuilt I-75; however that highway project has now been pushed back past 2020, meaning the Wasson Road line to Hyde Park likely would have been built soon after the line’s abandonment in 2009.

Renovating the Central Parkway Subway
Lost in the rhetoric employed to defeat MetroMoves was perhaps its most intriguing feature: a plan to renovate and at last put into use the two-mile subway beneath Central Parkway. This tunnel was built between 1920 and 1922 as part of the Rapid Transit Loop, a 16-mile transit line that would have connected Downtown with Brighton, Northside, St. Bernard, Norwood, Oakley, and O’Bryonville. Construction of the Rapid Transit Loop ceased soon after the Charterite ouster of the Boss Cox Machine and never resumed.

Three subway stations at Race Street, Liberty Street, and Brighton were to have been renovated and put into use as part of the 2002 MetroMoves plan. North of the subway’s portals, the line would have traveled on the surface to Northside, then entered I-74’s median near Mt. Airy Forest. Park & Ride stations were planned in the I-74 median at North Bend Road and Harrison Avenue/Rybolt Road in Green Township.

A fifth light rail line, requiring construction of four miles of new track, was planned to connect Northside and the Xavier University junction. Trains on this fifth line would travel from the far West Side to Hyde Park on the I-74 and Wasson Road corridors.

MetroMoves failure at the polls
MetroMoves was placed on the November 2002 ballot by SORTA in anticipation of a new federal transportation bill in 2003. What became known as SAFETEA-LU, a $286.4 billion measure, was not passed until 2005. Although SORTA’s board had the authority to place a transit tax on Hamilton County’s ballot in the years before the federal transportation bill was passed, MetroMove’s 2002 defeat was so lopsided (161,000 to 96,000 votes) that the regional transit authority choose not do so.

When speaking with those affiliated with the 2002 MetroMoves campaign, the failure of the ballot issue is usually attributed to four key factors:

  1. Anti-tax mood caused by the 1996 stadium sales tax and ensuing cost overruns
  2. 2001 Race Riot
  3. The MetroMoves campaign was thrown together quickly during summer 2002. SORTA’s board did not vote to place the issue on the ballot until August 20.
  4. A dirty opposition campaign comprised of Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes (D), Commissioner John Dowlin (R), Commissioner Phil Heimlich (R), and Congressman Steve Chabot (R).

The opposition campaign was led by Stephan Louis, who in late 2002 was reprimanded for false statements made during the campaign by the Ohio Elections Commission. Nevertheless, as a reward for his work in opposing MetroMoves, he was soon after appointed to SORTA’s board along with fellow public transit opponent Tom Luken in 2003.

Opponents to the 2002 MetroMoves campaign were accused and found guilty of using unethical campaign tactics. Newspaper image taken from a 2002 issue of CityBeat.

In 2006, Louis came under fire for having written racist and anti-public transportation emails and was forced off the board soon after. He reappeared to campaign in support of COAST’s anti-streetcar Issue 9 in 2009 and Issue 48 in 2011.

Another MetroMoves?
In 1972 when Cincinnati voters approved the .3% earnings tax that enabled creation of a public bus company, it was expected that city funding would be temporary and Hamilton County would eventually fund the region’s public transportation. Instead, nearly 40 years later, Cincinnati’s bus company is still funded only by the city and therefore provides only limited service outside city limits.

Ten years after the defeat of MetroMoves, despite a tripling of gasoline prices and the viability of transit systems proven by an increasing number of mid-sized American cities, it seems unlikely that a similar effort stands a chance of passage in Hamilton County in the immediate future. Many of the same public figures who opposed MetroMoves ten years ago have acted repeatedly in the past five to obstruct Cincinnati’s current streetcar project.

Furthermore, since the election of President Barack Obama (D) in 2008, the Tea Party has fomented an irrational suspicion of local government, and local anti-tax groups have authored intentionally misleading ballot issues. Meanwhile our local media, especially talk radio, continues to harass public transportation at every opportunity.

The way forward for the Cincinnati area has, since 2007, been the City of Cincinnati by itself. Despite the efforts of politicians, anti-tax groups, and utility companies to stop Cincinnati’s streetcar project, it broke ground in early 2012 and track installation will begin next year. Along with ongoing demographic shifts within Hamilton County, the success of Cincinnati’s initial streetcar might persuade the county’s electorate to approve county funding of public transportation for the first time.

  • You forgot to mention the failed Riverfront Transit Center’s contribution to peoples’ longstanding aversion to having horrendously expensive rail boondoggles shoved down their throats.

    The streetcar boondoggle comes at an opportune time. “Cincinnati’s Incomplete Subway: The Complete History” reminds us that every few generations need a high profile rail failure to remind them why Cincinnati remains blissfully rail-free.

    Once a boondoggle, always a boondoggle.

    • Gordon Bombay

      HaHa, typical COAST joke response. How quickly Mark Miller and friends forget history.

      The Riverfront Transit Center would’ve been utilized for light rail transportation had it not been for the defeat of Metro Moves. COAST and Co. opposed Metro Moves and thus left the center currently not used for its intended purpose. It’s “failure” can be chalked up to their opposition causing it. Nevertheless, the alternative was to fill that area in with dirt for an equally high price. Instead, we sought to plan for the future. These days the Transit Center is leased out to System Parking who pays to operate parking lots out of it. That “failure” generates revenue.

      Let’s take a look at the anti-tax climate. Hamilton County citizens were very adverse to tax hikes after the stadium boondoggle, hence a lot of the speculation against Metro Moves. Mike Brown and the Bengals came out with such a good deal that left the citizenry hanging. It’s funny, because “anti-tax” group COAST fully supported the stadium tax hikes.

      COAST’s esteemed leader, who Mr. Miller respects so dearly, wrote in an editorial that the stadium tax hike was a wonderful deal: “In a guest column published in the Forest Hills Journal on Sept. 13, 1995, Finney lavished praise on how fiscally sound the deal was and urged voters to approve it. Calling it “a perfectly sensible plan,” Finney added, “The plan makes sense, and it won’t cost me a nickel.””

      Is anyone really surprised that COAST endorsed cronies ended up working for Mike Brown’s Bengals after they were voted out of office for such a poorly handled stadium lease?

      You can read Mr. Finney’s full comments here:

      In the COAST world, public transportation that benefits the citizenry is “bad,” but giving a great stadium lease to your friends is “good.”

      Alas, it’s the same old rhetoric from COAST. An unemployed businessman and a Blue Ash resident banned from the community’s recreation center for harassing women spend all their days on Twitter shouting: “boondoggle, boondoggle, boondoggle.” Don’t forget Stephan Louis’ who is mentioned in the article above for his racist comments.

      Yet, their rhetoric falls on deaf ears. The streetcar has been upheld by the electorate… TWICE. It’s under construction and Hamilton County went: BLUE. For Barack Obama, the man COAST hates so, so much.

      COAST, why even try? It’s clear you’re nothing but Finney’s shills. Why do he and all his friends make all of the money while you two are left playing on Twitter?

    • Lay off of Mark Miller, it’s not his fault that he’s an unemployed deadbeat teabagger wannabe who keeps getting sued for not paying his bills!

    • Funny you bring up Jake Mecklenborg’s book, because that is not what the history shows at all. Cincinnati’s Rapid Transit Loop would have been very well off had it not been for the politics that used the prominent infrastructure investment as a tool to create controversy. The delay tactics eventually hurt the project with material cost escalation, and absurd political moves blocked Cincinnati from actually building a successful system.

      Cincinnati’s Rapid Transit Loop never failed because it was never given a chance to either succeed or fail. It was killed before it even became operational. You can’t blame the transit for that.

      As often is the case with infrastructure investments, it’s not the project that fails, it’s the politics.

    • Public transportation growth is coming whether people like it or not… the younger generation likes it and doesn’t feel the need to own a car. Trust me… also the trend of living in urban areas doesn’t seem to be slowing either.

  • You forget that you aren’t a legal resident of Cincinnati. The great road boondoogle is now funded by sales and income taxes. Why should my tax on my food purchase in cincinnati pay for I-275? But it does. THAT is boondoogle!

  • charles ross

    Holy Chit! You mean Metro is not funded by Hamilton county? I have always assumed it was a county based organization. And demo dusty was against public transport? The more I learn of this city, the queerer it gets.

    • Metro receives zero funding from Hamilton County, but county residents who work in Cincinnati do help pay for it through the earnings tax. It’s a somewhat unusual situation — across the river TANK is funded with county property taxes. In some cities like Atlanta and Los Angeles transit is funded entirely by county sales taxes, with no property or earnings tax revenue. Metro’s “Zone 2” bus routes are the ones that charge more when the bus leaves Cincinnati’s city limits, and the “Zone 3, 4, etc.” buses are subsidized by Butler, Warren, or Clermont Counties. Those counties have transit agencies but not their own city buses, they contract the suburban park & ride services through Metro.

  • Reshape it so that it actually goes through the west side as opposed to a few stops on the outskirts. Look at that map, it heavily favors east side neighborhoods whereas for most people living on the west side the stations require a decent drive to get to. Someone living in western hills would have to either drive 15 mins to the Dent station or 15 minutes to a Sedamsville/Lower Price Hill. At that point does it really make much sense to hop on light rail rather than just finish your trip? This thing will never win unless it actually benefits more than 50% of the city.

    • Also why terminate in Dent? Why not spread it out to Harrison?

    • Diminishing returns, I suspect.

    • Harrison is 8 or 9 miles further from Rybolt Rd, and has only 10,000 residents, less than many Cincinnati neighborhoods. So if the extension costs $200 million, it’s $20,00 per Harrison resident. 8 or 9 miles of track anywhere else in Hamilton County will have much higher ridership.

    • David Roberts †

      You are like the restaurantuers that keep looking at the City of Harrison only and ignore Harrison Twp, Crosby Twp, Whitewater Twp & SE IN! When you look at the entirety of the area, there are ~60,000 people that live out here! Also, this are of Hamilton County is just about the only part of the county that is showing a population increase. Now admittedly, the rail line shown going along the river to the west could also go out the lines that go into W. Harrison and on out to Brookville and Batesville. You might want to know your topic though before making statements that have no basis in reality!

    • I probably has to do with projected ridership and cost of each route. Maybe compared to the I-71 route, it would have cost twice as much to build a west side route that would achieve the same ridership. It makes sense that SORTA would build the routes with the highest return-on-investment first.

      In previous articles, Jake has thrown out the idea of a 1¢ tax (instead of a half-cent), similar to what other cities have done in recent years. That would allow for more (or longer) routes, perhaps better serving the west side.

    • What I have been told is that the West Side largely didn’t want light rail service, but who knows what the opinion is today. It is also difficult to access the West Side without a large cost since many of the rail right-of-ways have been eliminated there (i.e. Glenway Crossing area).

      The one good thing for the West Side would have been that the I-74 corridor line would have been one of the fastest due to its grade separation and minimal stops, and it would have also used the existing subway tunnels.

  • Jake, can you explain how two anti-transit activists got appointed to the SORTA board after the failure of MetroMoves? I’ve never understood that one…

    • John Dowlin and Phil Heimlich, who were county commissioners at the time and opposed Metromoves appointed Stephan Louis to SORTA’s board. Meanwhile Mayor Charlie Luken appointed his dad, Tom Luken. I’m not sure if these two appointments prevented Metromoves from being placed on the ballot again. There are cases in the past where projects have been put on the ballot year after year until they passed. Bonds for Central Parkway didn’t pass until the third try, for example, even though the subway had been completed and was covered only with dirt. In 1980 they put a second county transit tax on the ballot right after the failure of the 1979 campaign. I’d bet they didn’t try again because with Carter out and Reagan in the future of federal matches was in question, and in fact Reagan did slash support for public transportation.

    • Tom Luken is an “anti-transit activist”?!? What are you smoking?

      You do realize that Cincinnati’s public transit system was actually founded by Luken back when he was Mayor, don’t you? And that he is the only one in modern history to actually get a transit tax passed in this region?

      Seems like SORTA could learn a thing or two from somebody like that.

    • Tom Luken’s goal is for mass transit to be an option of last resort for those who can not afford to own a car and drive everywhere. That’s very different than a transit activist who wants transit to be a convenient, reliable, competitive option for all city residents when compared with driving.

    • Only COAST is stupid enough to take Tom Luken for his word. The man is a legend for all the wrong reasons, certainly ranking in the Top 5 Worst Cincinnatians of All Time.

  • Dan

    until americans are consistently paying $5+ a gallon at the pumps they will never fully embrace rail or real change in our modes of transportation. people are for mass transit until its cheap to drive then they are against it again. our wildly fluctuating gas prices drive public opinion.

    its funny that people cannot do the math and see that cities that embraced rail service years and years ago are the ‘great’ american cities of the present.

  • Neil Clingerman

    With changing attitudes towards the city and transit in general as well as demographic shifts, I think now would probably be a good time to at least conduct a survey to see where this issue stands for voters of Hamilton County. If there is a chance of support it might be a good idea to put together another ballot. Gas is only going to get more expensive.

    • Demographics will continue to shift more favorably the longer we wait and there are still a lot of question marks to wait for before re-presenting it to the masses. The success/failure of the initial phase of the streetcar could make or break any attempt. One could also hope for more resolution to federal funding in Washington with the fiscal cliff/spending cuts debates. Who knows maybe Iran will even cause an oil price spike.

      Survey data on the issue would be helpful in gauging the right timing and begin to get the idea in the public mind before doing a full, well thought out campaign later down the road. Circulating a survey now could actually be doubly beneficial by stirring the pot a little with the COASTers (which might distract them from the streetcar) and begin to get the idea back in the public mind.

  • Zachary Schunn

    Good article. I wish there was more info available on Metro Moves and where it would have gone… I’m always left confused when I look at the map.

    One question regarding this sentence…

    “MetroMove’s 2002 defeat was so lopsided (161,000 to 96,000 votes) that the regional transit authority choose not do so.”

    Everywhere I’ve seen–Enquirer, Wikipedia, blogs, etc.–the vote is quoted as 68-32, or “roughly 2-1.” Was this simply a typo that’s been repeated for 10+ years? A 68-32 vote is much different than 62-38.

    • So for the record, it was 62% against-38% for?
      There’s no excuse for Wikipedia: Fix it yourself! 🙂

    • Zachary Schunn

      I presume so… I was hoping Jake would have an insight though. I even saw the 68-32 tally on his website (quoted from Enquirer).

      So which is right, the vote tallies or the percentages?

  • With the news in the paper today about the County Commissioners possibly upping the sales tax rate 0.25% to fill the gap in funding for the Stadium Fund, it got me thinking. What happens to that current 0.50%, possibly 0.75%, sales tax money once the stadia are paid for completely?

    When that happens (which I realize is probably fairly far down the road) it would be a great opportunity to shift the funding to public transportation funding a la MetroMoves instead of letting it sunset (while probably still leaving a portion around 0.10-0.15% to continue capital reserves for the stadia). If it does get increased to 0.75%, i would hope it would accelerate that date for the Stadium Fund getting above water/paid off and leave plenty of room to fund public transit.

    It might be a good way for transit advocates to build a bridge within the county government where if we get behind the 0.25% increase to solve the stadia problem, then they add something to the end of the current sales tax and new one that includes a provision to shift it to mostly transit with a small portion to continue as stadia capital reserves.


    • I was asking around Hamilton County administration recently, starting with the Budget Office, to see who I would even talk to about the possibility of eventually shifting some money to transit. No one had any idea. The closest suggestion I heard was that the county has something to do with the eastern corridor rail study. That was where the trail ended. Transit isn’t on anyone’s radar at all at the County.
      Anything is possible, but there’s a long way yet to go!

  • Was there ever another map, or any further documentation for this plan? I’ve looked, but never seen anything beside this same low-res image. It’d be great to see a geographically accurate map of the proposed trunk lines if anyone has one.