SORTA Board: Steppingstone for Qualls?

(Photo: Jymi Bolden)

Big changes might be in store for the Metro bus system, and they could involve helping a prominent Democrat run for Hamilton County Commission in two years, sources said.

Insiders at both the local Democratic and Republican parties are suggesting that former Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls’ recent appointment to the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) board of trustees is part of a strategy for her to run for the county commission against Republican incumbent Pat DeWine in two years.

Mayor Mark Mallory nominated Qualls in December to serve as one of Cincinnati’s representatives on the SORTA board, which oversees the Metro system. Meanwhile, City Councilman John Cranley and County Commission President Todd Portune are creating a task force to consider altering how bus service is funded.

According to sources, the most likely outcome would involve ending SORTA’s involvement with Metro and transferring that responsibility to the Hamilton County Transportation Improvement District (TID). Without the bus system, it’s unclear if SORTA would continue to exist.

Under the scenario, Qualls would be appointed to run the TID board, which also would be given the responsibility to build and operate a streetcar system between downtown and the University of Cincinnati area. City officials currently are conducting a study of the streetcar system’s feasibility, and Procter & Gamble is said to support the system as a method for moving employees between its downtown offices and UC-related research facilities, sources said.

Like Mallory, Qualls often campaigns as a socially progressive Democrat but maintains strong ties to Cincinnati’s business community. So far, Qualls hasn’t publicly said that she’s seeking any political office beyond the SORTA appointment, but sources said the TID arrangement would be used as a steppingstone to a commission campaign in 2008.

If the speculation is accurate, it wouldn’t be the first time that the TID board was proposed to operate the Metro system. In January 2005, Cranley and Portune proposed that Cincinnati begin the process to allow private companies to submit bids for providing city bus service when the city and county were involved in a funding dispute with SORTA. At the time, the pair mentioned that the TID board could join as a partner in operating the Metro system.

Although SORTA operates independently, about half of Metro’s $73.5 million annual budget comes from a portion of Cincinnati’s earnings tax, and city and county officials appoint the agency’s board of trustees. Hamilton County provides some money, mostly to subsidize service for disabled riders, with the remainder of the budget coming from state and federal grants.

Cranley, a Democrat who heads city council’s Finance Committee, for years has alleged that SORTA had excessive overhead costs and has reconfigured service to favor suburban riders in outlying counties.

— Kevin Osborne

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