Cincinnati's streetcar saw most blockages ever last month, other challenges

With the end of the fiscal year approaching, ridership and proceeds from a special tax program are missing projections

IMG_0843.5acfbaa01605c - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell

A new report from acting Cincinnati City Manager Patrick Duhaney shows that despite hitting its millionth rider this month, the streetcar still has challenges to address. 

The transit system missed ridership goals last month, is experiencing big shortfalls in one source of operating funding and saw the most blockages along its route since it launched in September 2016.

The new data comes as the city, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, contracted operator Transdev and streetcar manufacturer CAF all work through the transit system's complex management structure to address challenges with on-time performance, ridership and big equipment issues that caused cold-weather performance problems.

Ridership for March missed budgeted goals, according to a supplementary report submitted by the city manager, though not by as much as it had earlier in the year, when cold-weather performance issues often sidelined the streetcar. Cincinnatians and visitors took 37,471 rides on the streetcar in March, 8.3 percent below a budgeted 40,875-ride goal. That put the streetcar at 384,201 rides for the fiscal year to date — under the 447,690 rides the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority budgeted for and less than the 437,429 rides the transit project provided this time last fiscal year.

There is some good news, however — the streetcar last month increased ridership by 8 percent over the same time last year. It’s the first time the transit project has increased ridership over the same month the previous year.

One of the funding mechanisms for the streetcar is also lagging, according to the report submitted by the city manager. The Voluntary Tax Incentive Contribution Agreements — VTICA for short — will generate about $36,000 by June 30, the end of fiscal year 2018. That’s a big drop from a projected $400,000 take for the transit project from developers in Over-the-Rhine and downtown who entered into the abatement agreement, which funnels money that would be paid in property taxes into a special streetcar fund.

The city says that a gap between construction costs on projects in VTICA and the market value they are assessed by Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes is one reason for the shortfall. The other is that a number of the developers involved have pushed back the dates by which their projects will be completed.

The $364,000 gap has led the city to revise its fiscal year 2019 projections for VTICA. The transit authority now believes the program will bring in about $133,000, not the $524,000 originally forecast. That’s an even bigger gap — $391,000. Should this year’s shortfall be paid from the city’s streetcar fund, that pot of money will be reduced to $1.1 million.

March was also a record month when it came to barriers along the streetcar’s route in the form of other vehicles. Nearly 100 such blockages happened last month. That’s been an ongoing issue — February saw almost as many. Since January, more than 50 blockages have come from cars, another 50 from delivery trucks, 45 from police or emergency vehicles and 80 from Metro buses.

That has cut into on-time performance for the streetcar, which is the responsibility of Transdev, the private company SORTA has contracted to oversee day-to-day operations of the transit system. The city’s report shows a 38 percent on-time rate for the streetcar on Transdev’s performance evaluation, which stretches from July 2017 to February this year. Officials have in turn blamed the streetcar's lagging ridership numbers at least in part on its inability to reach stops on time.

Meanwhile, the city is still wrangling with Spanish streetcar manufacturer CAF over problems with the vehicles’ air compressors, which can shut the cars down in cold weather. Over the past 15 months, according to the report, there have been 53 manufacturer-related vehicle failures resulting in service interruptions. The company's regular maintenance crew is doing good work, the city manager's report says, but the manufacturing defects are still being worked out. The city is withholding $5.6 million of its $20.5 million contract with CAF until those issues are resolved.