City of Cincinnati Seeks Public Input on Move Making Streetcar Fare-Free

The city is considering a proposal in which fare revenue for the streetcar would be replaced by money from sponsorships. The public is invited to weigh in on Dec. 10 at 1 p.m. at City Hall.

click to enlarge The streetcar - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
The streetcar

The City of Cincinnati wants your thoughts on whether the streetcar should be free to ride — something sure to elicit a few opinions. 

Currently, the 3.6 mile rail transit loop through downtown and Over-the-Rhine costs $1 for a single ride. An all-day pass costs $2. 

City officials will hold a public input session at City Hall Dec. 10 at 1 p.m. during Cincinnati City Council's Major Projects and Smart Government Committee to gauge public opinion on a restructuring of the streetcar's funding to eliminate fares and cover lost revenue with money from sponsorships sold on the assumption that streetcar ridership will increase. 

Interim Deputy Director of Streetcar Services Travis Jeric will give a presentation about the proposal at the meeting. 

The proposed shift comes as the city looks to take over the reins of the streetcar at the beginning of 2020. Currently, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority oversees its daily operation via contractor Transdev, though the board of the transit agency last month voted to cede control to the city as SORTA pursues a county sales tax to fund its Metro bus service.

The streetcar took in about $406,000 in fares in fiscal year 2019 — a drop from 2018's $445,000 — and received about $900,000 from sponsorships and naming rights that year, an increase from $629,000 the year prior, according to data from SORTA. 

It costs the city about $125,000 a year to collect the fares. 

Cincinnati City Councilmember David Mann first floated the idea of making the streetcar fare-free in 2018, citing the success of Kansas City's similar streetcar. 

That system, launched May 6, 2016, took about one year to reach 2 million rides. Ridership slowed somewhat after that, but the system was still close to 4 million rides at its two-year anniversary this month. Cincinnati’s system, by contrast, took 19 months from its Sept. 9, 2016 launch date to get to 1 million rides. Kansas City has more people — 480,000 to Cincinnati’s 300,000 — but with the ridership gap between the cities so wide, it's likely the difference goes beyond population.

This spring, the city revealed the streetcar faced a large budget gap that at one point looked to be as high as $1.4 million. Council bridged that gap by increasing parking fines, fees for blocking the streetcar tracks, moving forward with digital ad kiosks at streetcar stations to raise an extra $500,000 and cutting $50,000 from the streetcar's budget. 

Reaction on Twitter to the announcement of the public input session has been mixed, with streetcar supporters and detractors weighing in with their usual arguments about the merits of the system.