Metro Looking For Feedback On How To Improve Regional Transit System

Over the past month, Metro has been hosting public listening sessions in order to get a better idea for what current and would-be transit riders are looking for out of the region’s largest transit provider.

While the five sessions have been completed, Metro is still accepting feedback through an online survey that takes about five minutes to complete. Agency officials have not said when that process will be closed, but they say that the goal is to compile the data by the end of the year.

This public feedback process falls in line with growing speculation that Metro will ask Hamilton County voters next fall to approve a sales tax increase that would pay for expanded bus service throughout the county. As it is now, Metro is almost exclusively funded by the City of Cincinnati, and thus primarily provides service within those boundaries. Service outside of those boundaries costs riders extra – a situation that would be removed should voters approve the sales tax increase.

“At the end of the day, the transit system belongs to the people,” explained Jason Dunn, SORTA Board Chair. “It is our job to be good stewards of the transit system and uphold its mission. Ultimately, we’ll use this feedback to help us make decisions that will set the agenda for transit in the future.”

The public is asked to weigh in on a number of key items in the survey, including where bus service should be extended, and what kinds of operating schedules are preferred. The survey also asks about whether real-time arrival display boards, enhanced shelters and ticketing machines would be desired. All of these are items Metro has been adding over recent years, but at a modest pace.

In relation to service operations, Metro officials ask about adding more direct crosstown routes, park-and-ride lots, operating buses earlier or later, increasing weekend frequencies, and adding service to major commercial corridors like Glenway Avenue, Hamilton Avenue, Vine Street, Reading Road and Madison Avenue.

Each of these corridors have been identified for more robust service akin to what has been done along Montgomery Road, which features the first Metro*Plus route in the region. While not full-blown bus rapid transit, Metro officials see it as a step in that direction with its more frequent service, enhanced bus shelters and less frequent stops that allow for faster travel.

Of course, without a dedicated regional transit tax many of these improvements will be difficult to accomplish, or take many years to realize. In the most recent round of TIGER funding, Cincinnati did not apply for any transit-related projects, nor did it even compete for any funds in the recent distribution of the FTA’s Transit-Oriented Development Planning Pilot Program.

While City Hall focused its TIGER grant applications on the Elmore Street Bridge and Wasson Way, both of which were unsuccessful, Metro officials said they did not apply for the FTA funds because they did not believe they had projects ready for successful consideration. But some local transit advocates disagree.

“Our elected officials and administrators are asleep at the wheel,” said Derek Bauman, Southwest Ohio Director of All Aboard Ohio and Chair of Cincinnatians for Progress. “Pools of money exist, particularly at the federal level, for all types of transit planning and construction. We must at accept that times have changed, prepare for the modes of transportation that people are demanding today, and then avail ourselves to resources to make it happen as they become available.”

An additional meeting will be held to gather public feedback from young professionals on Wednesday, November 11 from 6pm to 7:30pm at MORTAR Cincinnati in Over-the-Rhine. Metro CEO and General Manager Dwight Ferrell will be there to take part in the Q/A, and the first 50 people in attendance will receive a free $10 stored value bus pass.

Metro officials say that all of the feedback from the listening sessions and online survey will be considered by the newly created Metro Futures Task Force, which is made up of community leaders who will then present their findings to the SORTA Board in early 2016.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect an additional public meeting that will be held on the evening of Wednesday, November 11.

CDK Global Appears Poised To Bring 1,000 Tech Jobs to Norwood

On Monday it was announced that CDK Global, an integrated technology and market services provider, would relocate 1,000 jobs to the Cincinnati region. At the time of the announcement, however, a specific site was not identified.

Given the company’s focus, UrbanCincy suggested a site somewhere in the center city would make sense for CDK and their employees. Since that time we have learned that the company will most likely move into the large Central Parke office complex in Norwood.

Located at Montgomery Road and Sherman Avenue, the site is in the heart of Norwood and is just down the street from Paycor’s new headquarters in Linden Pointe. Cassidy Turley lists Central Parke as having a block of 95,000 square feet of office space available following the relocation of Cincinnati Bell’s operations to downtown Cincinnati over the past year-and-a-half.

REDI Cincinnati, the region’s job attraction and retention organization, would not confirm the location, but sources close to UrbanCincy say that a deal is in fact close to being finalized. Representatives at CDK Global also would not confirm the information, but did say that they expect to close on a deal by Monday.

If true, it would follow a trend of major employers increasingly choosing in-town locations rather than suburban alternatives that long defined economic moves over the past several decades. It would also be a major win for Norwood which has struggled to maintain its tax revenues as company after company has left the aging industrial city for other locations.

With annual payroll estimated to be around $45 million, the City of Norwood would receive approximately $900,000 annually in new tax revenues from their 2% earnings tax. This is not accounting for any types of tax breaks that may have been offered by the City of Norwood in addition to those given by the State of Ohio.

The Central Parke complex was developed on the former General Motors production plant that was shuttered, along with its 4,000 jobs, in 1987. Since that time, the City of Norwood has struggled economically and been dealt several setbacks in its efforts to diversify its tax base. Such struggles have meant credit rating hits and caused the city to drastically cut its budget and reduce public services over the years.

While landing CDK would help in the short-term, the future continues to look problematic for Norwood with fewer and fewer resources coming from the statehouse in Columbus. As a result, it may still make sense for a municipal merger with the City of Cincinnati in the future, which is both more economically powerful and stable.

The former office space occupied by Cincinnati Bell is reportedly in good condition and will require minimal upgrades in order to accommodate CDK’s staff. Its location is accessible by two Metro bus routes – the #4 and #51 – and has a Walk Score of 85.

Project Officials To Move Forward With Phase III of The Banks Ahead of Schedule

Business leaders and public officials from the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County will gather tomorrow morning to celebrate the groundbreaking of the next phase of work at The Banks.

As has been done in the past at the massive central riverfront development, the first work to be done will be the construction of a public parking garage that will lift the project out of the Ohio River’s flood plain. From there, the existing public streets surrounding the project site will be extended to frame the block.

While the event is being touted as a groundbreaking ceremony, workers from Prus Construction and Beaty Construction began mobilizing on the site to perform preparation work. The news is a bit of a departure from previous announcements that said construction work would hold off until the close of the Bengals season in order to preserve parking for tailgaters at Paul Brown Stadium.

In this particular phase of work, project officials say that 690 parking spaces will be built on two levels that will be connected with the rest of the underground parking deck at The Banks, which has been casually described as one of the largest underground parking structures in North America.

This $29.3 million effort is being jointly funded by the City of Cincinnati, Hamilton County, and the State of Ohio’s Jobs Ohio program. Representatives from the various public agencies funding the project say that it will create an estimated 200 jobs, with at least 30% of the contract totals spent with Small Business Enterprises.

Such a claim for small business inclusion is on-target for what the project has been delivering thus far. As of June 2015, the latest reporting date, The Banks has had an average of 36% small business participation and approximately 17.5% minority and female workforce participation.

Nearby work continues on the private sector vertical construction of Radius, a 291-unit apartment midrise with 19,000 square feet of street-level retail, and the 340,000-square-foot General Electric Global Operations Center.

Once these two phases of work are complete, it will allow for the next phase of Smale Riverfront Park to move forward, and will set the stage for private real estate development south of Freedom Way and in between Race and Vine Streets.

So far, Carter USA and the Dawson Company have yet to reveal what will ultimately be built on top of this latest garage extension, but most suspect it will be some combination of apartments and condominiums.

While The Banks has received much positive praise as of late, it has not come without its struggles. The retail in the first phase of the project continues to find its footing, and the area continues to struggle with a brand identity and architectural designs that people feel are worthy for the prominent piece real estate that this development occupies.

Stars Aligning for Cincinnati to Chicago High-Speed Rail

4123288130_f7b778d9d5_bLocal and national developments show positive signs for America’s oft-criticized national passenger railroad company, Amtrak. A railroad reform bill introduced in the Senate contains many positive changes for Amtrak and local support continues to grow for increased service on Cincinnati’s tri-weekly train to Indianapolis and Chicago.

The Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act of 2015 (RREEA, S.1626) was introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) to improve Amtrak service across the nation. The bill addresses several different issues for the railroad, including expansion, funding, and leadership. It also provides an increase in funding levels for the railroad through 2019.

In terms of leadership, the legislation would reorganize the board of directors for the railroad, with two representatives for the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor, two for long-distance routes (the Cardinal), and two for state-supported lines. There would also be one “floating” member.

The RREEA also includes several sections that fuel possible future expansion of the national rail network by establishing a committee to facilitate communication and cooperation between states and Amtrak on state-supported routes. In addition, it would require Amtrak to work with an independent agency to evaluate all routes and review possible elimination of routes, expansion or extension of current routes, or the establishment of new ones.

While calling this clause problematic, the National Association of Railroad Passengers acknowledges that this text includes a “comprehensive framework for analyzing a route that recognize the unique benefits rail service provides.”

Section 301 of the act explicitly requires that the Department of Transportation set up a program to assist the operating costs of launching or restoring passenger rail transportation. The section seems to be a nod towards the amount of routes cut from the system over Amtrak’s 40-plus years of operation.

Additional clauses provide mechanisms for cooperation between states and the federal government, when it comes to addressing the backlog of capital projects within the system, Amtrak’s money-losing food service, and the restoration of service along the Gulf Coast, a line that has been out of commission since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

After the deadly derailment in Philadelphia in May, safety across the network is a major component of this legislation.

Both sponsoring senators touted the bipartisan nature of the bill and Senator Wicker’s office released a statement identifying the national passenger rail system as an “integral part of our overall transportation structure and our economy,” and thanking Senator Booker for his support and help in creating the bill.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation voted on July 13 to include the RREEA Act into the broader transportation bill, the Comprehensive Transportation and Consumer Protection Act of 2015 (S.1732).

In the Cincinnati metropolitan area, support continues to grow for the expansion of rail service in the area, especially to Chicago.

The City of Hamilton recently applied to Amtrak for a stop and has passed a resolution of support for increased service. Nearby in Oxford, home of Miami University, initial approvals have been set to create a station for Amtrak, and efforts are currently underway to identify the exact location for that facility.

The effort has also gained support from the University of Cincinnati Student Senate, when they passed a resolution 31-1 in support of increased rail service to Chicago, citing Chicago as “an important transportation hub for students’ co-op travels, as well as an economic destination for students, staff, and faculty alike.”

According to All Aboard Ohio’s Southwest regional director, Derek Bauman, the UC student government president is also coordinating with other local university student governments to obtain resolutions of support; and in addition to Hamilton, both Norwood, where Amtrak employs local workers, and Wyoming, where the Cardinal line runs through, have also passed resolutions of support for increased passenger rail service.

Hamilton County commissioners also unanimously approved a resolution pursuing a feasibility study.

Going forward, Bauman says that there will be a need for increased cooperation and support from local Metropolitan Planning Organizations along the route. In Columbus, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) has actively supported the implementation of a Columbus-Ft. Wayne-Chicago rail line; and in Northeast Ohio, a consortium of local MPOs have banded together and formed a sub-group to support increased rail service to the region.

From here, leadership at All Aboard Ohio says that they hope the OKI Regional Council of Governments will take a similar approach on behalf of the Cincinnati region.

Report Finds Homelessness Is Decreasing in Hamilton County and Cincinnati

A newly released report shows that homelessness in Cincinnati and Hamilton County declined in 2014 to levels not seen since 2010.

The report comes from Strategies to End Homelessness, a local leader of 30 homeless service organizations. Using data from the Homeless Management Information System, the non-profit organization said that they saw positive results all around.

The number of people on the streets, which saw a large jump in 2013, returned to 2011 levels. Those staying in emergency shelters also dropped by 7% since 2012, which officials say can be attributed to the increase in people being served by permanent housing programs, which has increased 167% since 2010.

Local leaders also say that this drop is also partially a result of their member organizations’ homeless prevention efforts, which Kevin Finn, CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, told UrbanCincy in March is one of the most critical factors in reducing homelessness.

Since 2011, these organizations have seen only 10.2% of the people served by their shelter diversion programs later become homeless. Finn says that preventing people from needing a shelter is not only effective, but it saves money as well.

“Homelessness prevention activities work and at a fraction of the cost of assisting after a person is already homeless,” said Finn. “Stopping people from ever needing to enter a homeless shelter just makes sense.”

The report found that men make up 59% of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s homeless population, and that some 66% of those that are homeless are black.

One of the national trends is that women and children make up one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. In Cincinnati and Hamilton County, the report found that children are 29% of the area’s homeless – 6% of which are children without adult accompaniment. Furthermore, approximately 15% were found to be veterans.

In all, the number of people on the streets, in shelters, or in transitional programs in all of Hamilton County was 7,810 in 2014.

The Cincinnati area received a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant of $15.4 million earlier this year to combat homelessness. This money has not yet been distributed, but once it does, it will be set aside for non-prevention programs.

Local leaders also have reason to be optimistic due to the ongoing investment in new facilities, through Cincinnati’s Homeless to Homes program, to care for the area’s homeless population.

“In 2015, three improved shelters are opening, significantly improving the quality of services being offered to the homeless in our community,” Finn said. “We are also hoping to expand prevention efforts, so that fewer people will have to experience the trauma of homelessness.”