Metro's sales tax increase can improve streets, sidewalks, bridges in the county's small towns

Cincinnati’s first-ring suburbs face unique challenges. Changing demographics, economic stability, and issues regarding resources and security are common threads among these jurisdictions. 

The ways the 49 Hamilton County cities, villages, townships, and municipal corporations not only adjust but thrive is the focus of this series, First Suburbs—Beyond Borders. The series explores the diversity and ingenuity of these longstanding suburban communities, highlighting issues that demand collective thought and action to galvanize their revitalization.

Four years ago, when Hamilton County voters passed a tax increase for Cincinnati Metro, they did a lot more than change how the bus system is paid for.

The 25-year hike in the county sales tax also set up a fund that can help pay for infrastructure improvements, much of which can benefit the county’s small towns and villages outside the city of Cincinnati – its first-ring suburbs. Most of the tax money is earmarked for bus operations and capital expenses, but 25 percent is set aside for improvements to roads, bridges, and sidewalks that fall within Metro's service area, which extends to the county borders.

Since 2021, Metro has awarded $294 million from this transit infrastructure fund to 97 projects across the county. Although much of that -- $205 million -- was awarded to a single project, the rebuild of the Western Hills Viaduct, a major east-west connector within the city of Cincinnati, tens of millions have been awarded to projects that lie outside the city boundaries. That makes the fund a potential significant source of infrastructure improvement to the small towns within the county, many of which struggle to find ways to pay for big projects.

One of the biggest recipients of the transit fund has been the city of Madeira, which has applied for an award in each of the three rounds of funding, and been awarded each time, for a total of $6.8 million. Much of that money will go toward a revitalization of busy Miami Avenue, which runs through Madeira’s main business district.  The thoroughfare will be converted from four lanes to three, with the addition of a two-way center left turn lane. The pavement will be replaced; sidewalks will be widened; new lighting appropriate for a small-town business district will be installed; new traffic signals will be erected; all part of the “complete streets” plan to make Miami Avenue safer for people to walk or bicycle there.

The improvements will benefit Madeira’s small businesses and should lead to more investment in the town of 10,000 people, says Mayor Doug Moormann. “We think it will generate interest in businesses located in downtown Madeira,” he says. “We've certainly had some good success, but we're confident that the investment the city is making will bring additional success on that front.”

Busy Miami Avenue in Madeira is being made safer for pedestrians.Among the retailers on Miami Avenue district is A Tavola restaurant, Redden Fine Meats, a butcher shop located in a renovated train depot, Ferrari’s Little Italy bake shop and restaurant, an independent pharmacy, and several boutiques and apparel shops.

The transit infrastructure fund is available to projects that are within three-quarters of a mile of a bus route and is meant for projects that make it easier to walk, ride, or drive to a bus stop, or just make it easier  and safer to get around.

The transit infrastructure funds, coupled with improved and expanded Metro services are enabling us to improve overall mobility throughout the region,” says Metro CEO Darryl Haley.

The latest round of funding, made in February, included $2.6 million to repair streets, sidewalks and curbs in Lincoln Heights; $582,000 to rebuild a street in Mt. Healthy; $200,000 to repair two streets in Reading; and $470,000 to build a sidewalk and move a bus shelter in Woodlawn. Those were some of the 29 projects in 20 municipalities that won a total of $27.8 million in grants in the 2024 round.

In Madeira’s case, a comprehensive plan for the town’s future, which was drafted in 2019 and updated last year, has been a key to the town’s success in winning grants not only from Metro, but from other county, state and federal sources, Moormann says. “It's been incredibly helpful at getting everybody on the same page and pointing in the same direction,” he says. “That includes our council, city administration, and our boards and commissions.”

The 69-page document outlines specific goals for economic development, enhancing active transportation such as walking and bicycling, improving parks, community gathering places and other civic spaces, and becoming a greener community. It was drafted with the assistance of Envision, a Columbus-based consulting firm, and a nine-month public engagement effort that included sessions for public input and a community survey.

The plan sets specific goals and steps for improving the town’s business district, its main thoroughfares, its parks and sidewalks, and community facilities. It also anticipated working with a bus system that is in the process of reinventing itself and has secured a steady stream of tax money to do that.

Madeira’s plan recognizes the potential of Metro’s bus rapid transit project, which Metro officials say will mean speedier, smoother service along major north-south bus routes in the county.  The BRT project will start on two north-south corridors – Hamilton Avenue and Reading Road, with service scheduled to begin in late 2027 on Reading and in 2028 on Hamilton.

A BRT route along Montgomery Road is on the drawing board for a possible future expansion. Although that is years down the road, Madeira has already been in very early talks with officials in neighboring towns about how to capitalize on the expected increase in ridership that may come from a BRT route on that high-traffic, north-south road.

“If bus rapid transit is as successful as we think it might be, we want to be a part of the system,” Moormann says.

The BRT project is currently in the design phase and potential community and environmental impact is being assessed, says Metro spokesperson Brad Mason. Metro is working with affected communities to determine how traffic will be affected, what the stations will look like and whether property acquisitions will be needed, he says.  

Outside of the city of Cincinnati, the Hamilton Avenue route will have an impact on the first-ring suburbs of North College Hill and Mt. Healthy, while a Montgomery Road route, if built, would affect the towns of Norwood, Deer Park and Silverton, in addition to Madeira.

Madeira’s detailed and updated plan has helped the community achieve higher scores from funders such as Metro when grants, which are always competitive, are awarded, Moormann says. “It gives the funders a sense of confidence that you're not just applying because there's an opportunity to apply, you're applying because there is a plan,” he says.

The plan and the town’s local matching funds have helped Madeira win about $20 million in county, state and federal grants since 2019, Moormann says. That’s helped with the rebuild of its Miami Avenue commercial district, bike lanes on Dawson Road, and major improvements to its McDonald Commons park, among other projects.

The grants also represent a good return on investment from the taxes that residents pay, including the Metro sales tax, the gas tax that pays for roads, and other levies, Moormann says.  

“Our perspective is that the dollars are available,” he says. “If you don't apply, someone else will.”

READ MORE: Getting around the city: A 50-year-old bus system works to reinvent itself

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including the Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.