Transportation Ballot Measures Face COVID-19 Era Test in Ohio

Ohioans cast their ballots in the state’s primary election on Tuesday, April 28. Originally scheduled for March 17, the election had been postponed to provide voters more time to mail in absentee ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Alongside federal, state, and local races, voters in Cincinnati and Toledo had the opportunity to weigh in on two major ballot measures: a 0.8% countywide sales tax increase to fund expanded bus service in Cincinnati (Issue 7), and a 0.5% sales tax increase measure to fund a range of civic projects in Toledo, including $40 million annually for road repair (Issue 1). Issue 7 in particular was one the first high profile transit measures to face voters in the midst of COVID-19. As of April 30, Issue 7 remains too close to call, though it appears on track for a narrow approval, while Issue 1 appears on track for defeat. While it is too early to assess if Tuesday’s results are a bellwether for future measures this year, the outcomes offer signs of both hope and caution.

Issue 7 in Cincinnati has been in the works for several years as local transportation advocates aimed to shift funding for the Southern Ohio Regional Transit Authority’s (SORTA) bus service from an earnings tax to a sales tax. Currently, SORTA’s bus service is funded by a 0.3% earnings tax on those who live or work in Cincinnati. Faced with growing demands for expanded bus service and projected funding shortfalls, officials pushed to replace the citywide earnings tax with a countywide 0.8% sales tax increase in Hamilton County that would raise nearly $130 million each year. Three-quarters of the new revenue would fund a range of bus service improvements including more frequent service, extended hours (including 24 hour service on select routes), and new routes and transit centers, while the remaining quarter would fund other infrastructure improvements in the region.

In November 2019, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure (Issue 22) to eliminate the citywide earnings tax if the new sales tax was approved in the spring. Approval of Issue 22 was the first major step in adopting the new sales tax, and was viewed as a positive sign for the fate of Issue 7. While results have yet to be finalized, the narrow approval of Issue 7 suggests that proceeding with ballot measures may not be futile, though measures may ultimately be decided by closer margins than anticipated. As absentee ballots are counted in the coming weeks, changes in the vote margin for Issue 7 will provide a more accurate assessment of voter support for the measure.

While the sales tax measure in Cincinnati may narrowly pass, Issue 1 in Toledo appears to have failed by a larger margin. Initial results as of April 30 show the measure failing by a 56-44 margin, though results are not official until outstanding absentee and provisional ballots are counted. Issue 1 was intended to replace the city’s temporary 0.75% income tax with a 10-year, 1.25% sales tax. Unlike Issue 7, the Toledo measure was not exclusively a transportation vote: 60% of the new revenue was intended for general fund expenditures including police, parks, and universal Pre-K while 40% of the revenue was set to fund road repairs. Given the broader mix of projects included in Issue 1, its likely defeat may not offer much insight into the fate of transportation-specific measures in 2020, or whether income tax measures are less likely to pass than sales tax measures.

The growing uncertainty over the impact and duration of COVID-19 has called into question whether states and localities will move ahead with similar transportation measures this fall. As income and sales tax revenues continue to take a major hit, local governments and their residents are beginning to feel mounting financial pressure, requiring officials to reassess plans and outlooks for the months and year ahead. For cities planning to go ahead with transportation measures, Tuesday’s mixed provide few clues for the fall, though officials may experience closer than expected results.

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