On the Right Track

Cincinnati’s proposed streetcar system finds support but is still short on funding

May 13, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Streetcars could be rolling along downtown streets in Cincinnati in just a few years. After years of proposals and studies, city officials are lining up financing for the first phase.

The plan calls for modern streetcars running on tracks with quiet electric motors that get their power from overhead wires. The proposed route would run from The Banks and Great American Ball Park on the riverfront up Main Street to 12th Street, over to Elm Street, past Music Hall and Findlay Market and up to Corryville and the University of Cincinnati via Vine Street or another route. It would return to Over-the-Rhine, follow Race Street to Central Parkway and then go down Walnut Street to The Banks.

Original plans called for the tracks to end at McMicken Avenue in Over-the-Rhine, but city officials decided it made sense to expand the route to include UC in the initial phase. Later phases could include spurs to medical facilities and the Zoo in Uptown and across the river to Newport and Covington, with additional lines possibly using existing rails to other city neighborhoods.

But those plans are in the future — the 4.5 mile downtown/UC loop is the focus of the government officials, politicians and citizens’ groups who are working to find funding for the initial phase, which they estimate at $128 million.

“It’s been a grassroots effort from the beginning to get a streetcar line in Cincinnati,” says Brad Thomas, a spokesperson for the Cincy Streetcar advocacy group. The group is working with Cincinnatians for Progress, city officials and business leaders to find the needed funds.

Thomas says that more than half the funding is in place, including $25 million in city tax increment financing (TIF), $25 million from a city bond issue, $11 million or more from the sale of the Blue Ash Airport and a $7 million grant from Duke Energy. For the balance, they’re looking at direct federal funding to municipalities through the stimulus bill, competitive grants and money available for rail transit projects.

Supporters also are investigating private funding, such as the sale of naming rights for the streetcar system. Cleveland recently sold naming rights to its bus and rapid transit system for more than $10 million, according to Thomas.

Streetcar advocates believe that development will follow, as it has in other cities such as Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wisc., where streetcar routes have resulted in an economic boom in the areas near the tracks.

Work is scheduled to begin in 2010, and it will take about 18 months to complete the first phase. The tracks and overhead wires can be installed at a rate of about one block every three weeks, Thomas says. The city will buy six streetcars to operate on the route, with room for 130 passengers on each. The cars’ open design allows them to accommodate wheelchairs, strollers and bicycles.

Thomas notes that a benefit of the proposal that’s often overlooked is its potential to lower the number of cars per residence in the city and encourage more residents to live downtown. This in turn would promote development of additional housing, which would be more affordable if only one parking space, rather than two, had to be provided for each unit.

Add in the savings gained from not having to maintain a second car, and downtown living can start to look attractive, especially to the “creative class,” younger professionals whom Thomas says will help vitalize the area by providing a built-in market for entertainment, dining and service businesses.

Businesses currently located along the proposed route hope to see an immediate benefit as the streetcars bring them new customers.

“Anything that gets university students downtown, I’m in favor of,” says Jay Kalagayan, development director of Know Theatre on Jackson Street, just half a block from the proposed route.

The line will operate until midnight during the week and until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Eighteen stops are planned along the route.

The streetcar line has run into some opposition, however, from several groups that consider it a “boutique” item and believe that it represents wasteful spending, or at least that the money could be better spent on other projects.

Streetcar opponents include the Cincinnati NAACP, the Southwest Ohio Green Party and COAST (Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes). They doubt that the $128 million price tag for the streetcar will lead to billions or even millions in development downtown. The Green Party is specifically opposed to the project because it doesn’t think it addresses Cincinnati’s transportation needs.

“It’s a novelty thing,” the party’s PAC treasurer, Gwen Marshall, says, “but I just don’t believe it will provide real transportation.”

Members of these groups currently are collecting signatures to place the issue on the November ballot as a charter amendment to require public approval of any type of rail project funding.

“This will force politicians to bring the streetcar project before the public,” says Christopher Smitherman, president of the Cincinnati NAACP, who believes the city has other priorities that are more important than streetcars.

The city will own the tracks and the streetcars, but the system will be designed, built, operated and maintained by a private contractor. City officials have received bids already and have narrowed their choices to two firms: URS Transit and Veolia Transportation. Veolia’s proposal includes a working relationship with local firms HDR Engineering, Parsons Brinckerhoff, DNK Architects, Burgess & Niple, Wordsworth Communication and PNC Capital Markets.

The ongoing expense of paying an outside contractor to operate the streetcar system concerns Marshall, who thinks that the annual operating budget for the streetcar will shortchange other city budget items. Smitherman agrees with her assessments, saying that fares won’t be able to cover the estimates of $5 million a year to operate the streetcar, so the city will have to allocate money from the annual budget that he believes could be better used repairing roads and helping revitalize neighborhood business districts.

But even the opponents tend to think that the proposal will move ahead and Cincinnati will have streetcars again — for the first time in 50 years. Streetcar supporters are confident they’ll win at the ballot box and in the race for funding, putting streetcars back on Cincinnati streets by late 2011.