“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” Charles Dickens last stopped by the Queen City in 1841, but when he wrote those words he could have been talking about our town’s transit system, circa 2016.

The best of times? That’s the newly launched downtown streetcar. It’s sleek, comfortable and fun to ride. Much to the chagrin of longtime critics, streetcar ridership has exceeded expectations, particularly on weekends.

I suspect that all those streetcar naysayers had misjudged the public’s desire for modern public transportation. Kentucky Transit advocates are already promoting a streetcar loop connecting Cincinnati’s Riverfront to Newport and Covington. Cincinnati proponents like John Schneider are refocused on how to extend the system to Pill Hill, Xavier University and beyond.

The worst of times? That’s the rest of our neglected public transit system. METRO, an aging fleet of about 350 buses, is run by the Southwestern Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), a 13-member committee appointed by the mayor and the County Commission. SORTA’s primary funding comes from a .003 percent city income tax passed in the 1970s, paid only if you work or live in the city.

Most of us reading this article rarely ride the bus. Infrequent service and inscrutable routes make it more convenient for most of us to drive. But, believe it or not, about 30 percent of Cincinnati adults do not own cars. They rely on public transit to get to work, visit the doctor or do their grocery shopping. METRO estimates that about 20 percent of downtown Cincinnati’s workforce—about 17,000 people daily—ride METRO to work. In addition, thousands of Cincinnati school kids rely on METRO every school day.

As the mayor and council have feuded about the new streetcar in recent years, METRO has languished. Bus ridership is down about 17 percent since 2009. This fall SORTA laid off several key staff members. CEO Dwight Ferrell described the system as “not financially sustainable.”

One problem may be the current SORTA board, appointed by a mayor and a County Commission with no apparent affection for public transit. After appointing a commission to look at the system, and hearing their recommendation for a county-wide sales tax, SORTA blinked. Any new funding model has been put off at least until 2017.

Do the politicians who appoint SORTA’s members see METRO as just another welfare program for the destitute? How else do you explain the city’s recent initiative to haul away the benches placed at bus stops to provide a little comfort for folks waiting for a too-often delayed bus?

METRO riders, seeing the success of the streetcar, are finally beginning to demand more than a fading, inefficient system. Cam Hardy, a 25-year-old Cincinnati State student, works a security job downtown to pay his bills. Cam relies on METRO to get to school and work. Lately he’s been giving City Hall a piece of his mind—in person and on social media. In a recent letter, Cam told council “I ride the bus every day to commute to/from work and school… Outside of peak hours, my bus runs once an hour.” Cam’s bus broke down twice in recent months, leaving passengers stranded. He told council, “METRO is on the brink of cutting more services… I feel disrespected as a bus rider.”

With current riders reaching for their pitchforks, METRO’s current service and fleet is unlikely to attract a new generation of riders. Many of us would love to reduce our own personal car fleets. Millenials and those of us living in walkable urban neighborhoods like Walnut Hills long for comfortable and efficient public transit. But that means more rail not just a few more buses.

METRO needs a new infusion of dollars and vision. But in selling voters on a new transit tax, SORTA must build on the excitement surrounding the streetcar. Promising only a Band-Aid for a tarnished bus system will not win a majority of a county-wide electorate that rarely rides the bus.

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