Dwight Ferrell, CEO and general manager at the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which operates Metro, says what he enjoys about his job is the ability to make a difference in people’s lives.

Take a young father Ferrell encountered at a public event a few weeks ago.

“He said our new Cincy EZRide app changed his life,” says Ferrell. “I thought he might be exaggerating, but he talked about how easy it is when he rides the bus with his children instead of having to hunt for quarters. We provide access to people some of whom would have no other alternative. We provide a choice.”

But SORTA’s ability to provide that choice is under severe strain.

Ridership, with the exception of 2012 when Cincinnati hosted the World Choir Games, has declined from 19.4 million in 2009, when base fares were raised and service trimmed because of budget constraints, to 16.2 million last year.

With ridership down so are revenues. Metro’s operating budget of about $94 million in 2015 was down about $1 million from the prior year.

Earlier this year, the Metro Futures Task Force, a panel of 20 community leaders convened by SORTA, said Metro’s current business model, which relies on half its revenue from the City of Cincinnati income tax, was unsustainable. The Task Force concluded long-term sustainability and growth require permanent public funding for Metro through a sales tax from across Hamilton County or beyond.

“It’s very clear,” says Jason Dunn, SORTA’s chairman. “If you have more expenses than income, you have to make some changes.”

Dunn says there are basically four avenues SORTA can take.

“One is we increase fares, which has proven not to be an option that will help us grow. Second is to seek a [tax] levy, which takes more education and innovation to show what the return on investment will be. Thirdly cut routes to meet revenue, which means less frequency, which means less riders and longer waits for buses and we won’t reach the jobs that are available outside the city. Lastly, we do nothing, and the system tanks.”

While SORTA prepares to build a case for a countywide tax levy, Ferrell, 59, is the man at the wheel. With more than 30 years in mass transit management, Ferrell, who started as a bus operator in his native Dallas, was hired two years ago from Atlanta where he was chief operating officer of the metropolitan Atlanta transit system and served briefly as Fulton County manager.

He says SORTA’s situation isn’t unique.

Transit systems in many cities have seen a decline in ridership, as funding sources have gotten tighter since the Great Recession.

“The challenge now is how to add service back so it works for people to use it. That is the challenge most transit systems have and we’re no different,” he says.

In September, Metro unveiled a strategic plan that calls for increasing Metro ridership by 25 percent to 20 million rides by 2021.

“We want to do that by changing how we do business,” Ferrell says. “We’re doing things to be more efficient and to lower our expenses so there are more dollars available to provide service.”

Part of that is engaging Metro’s roughly 850 employees to suggest ways to improve operations.

One example is a Metro employee council made up of millennials, which represent about 25 percent of Metro’s workforce.

“They think differently,” Ferrell says. “I wanted their feedback on how to make Metro millennial friendly.”

In one exercise they were asked to bring in advertising that spoke to them.

“What moved them was really things not so much focusing on the brand but focusing on how it impacted their lives.”

SORTA is also overseeing the new Cincinnati Bell Connector linking the Banks with Over-the-Rhine.

Despite years of controversy over the streetcar, initial ridership has exceeded expectations, with more than a quarter-million rides in its first two months. Despite a few initial glitches with ticket vending machines and meeting scheduled times, Ferrell, who’s been involved in streetcar launches in Dallas, Houston and Atlanta, says the Connector has been one of the smoothest streetcar launches he’s been involved with.

At Metro, Ferrell says, the system is looking at ways to deliver a better product to riders. One example is the Cincy EZRide app, which allows customers to check schedules and buy fares for Metro and the Cincinnati Bell Connector by phone. Introduced in September, the app had 7,365 customer accounts by the end of October. About one in four Connector fares is purchased through the app, he says.

Metro also is looking at changing its fleet configuration before year-end, introducing smaller capacity buses for longer, commuter routes. Those buses will have charging ports for electronic devices. Metro is also looking into introducing Wi-Fi service on its buses for the first time.

To squeeze more dollars out of its existing budget, Metro has done other things such as a program that cut trash collection costs by about $12,000 annually.

“We’re working on other things to create efficiencies to general dollars for amenities,” he says. “The hope is they’re creating more riders and therefore more revenue.”

But to expand Metro’s service footprint will take access to more revenues than it now has.

A study for the Metro Futures Task Force found there are about 75,000 jobs in Hamilton County alone without access to public transit within a quarter mile.

But Ferrell points out it not as simple as adjusting bus routes to reach those jobs.

“Does the bus go there when I need it? Is it late enough? Is it early enough? Is it frequent enough? And how long does it take me to get there?” he says.

“In our current funding situation we have to take it from somewhere else. We can’t just add service. It’s not a zero sum game.”

SORTA Chairman Dunn says Ferrell’s ability to explain Metro’s impact in simple terms is one of his key strengths.

“Dwight has the ability to make it relatable,” he says. “He makes it relevant and he brings an appeal to it that piques people’s curiosity.”

That ability to make the case for Metro will be critical in the next few months as SORTA’s board and the community make decisions about its future.

Public transit relies on tax dollars, whether they’re local, state or federal, says Ferrell.

“Everybody who pays taxes is a shareholder, so we want to have an organization where people want to continue to invest,” he says.

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