Who is in charge as the streetcar struggles?

City administration says that the current tangle of groups with some control over the streetcar isn't the best management structure. But will a single leader help the transit project's ridership and financial difficulties?

Mar 6, 2018 at 4:12 pm

click to enlarge Who is in charge as the streetcar struggles?
Nick Swartsell

As Cincinnati’s streetcar ridership drops and its financial future appears murky, the transit project is struggling in a tangle of groups responsible for its operation, Cincinnati Assistant City Manager John Juech told a Cincinnati City Council committee today. That probably won’t improve until a single leader emerges to make tough decisions, he said.

“I don’t know that things are truly going to get better the way we want them to under this management structure,” Juech said of the current situation.

Under that structure, the city funds much of the streetcar’s operations, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority is responsible for its overall trajectory and the private company it contracts with, Transdev, oversees its day-to-day operation.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget CAF, the Spanish company that manufactured the streetcar and is still on the hook for repairs to cars that won’t run in cold weather due to compressor problems.

Some council members groused about Transdev’s service so far. Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard called the company’s performance “underwhelming,” and asked how to measure them and hold them accountable.

But SORTA holds the Transdev contract, not the city, making it hard for council to come down hard on them directly. That’s just one example of the streetcar’s complicated web of accountability.

“The problem that we have now is that there’s not one single person day to day who can make decisions and is empowered to make this thing work. You need one neck to choke,” Juech said, repeating an aphorism he said he heard from a Cincinnati Bell executive. “"If things are going wrong, you need to know who is responsible and who can get it fixed. As of now, we don't have that and I think that's a real constraint."

Councilman Greg Landsman said during the meeting that most key players seem to agree that a single body should be making streetcar decisions — though who that should be is still not clear.

Efforts to figure it all out come as the streetcar faces big challenges.

In January, its ridership was half of what SORTA budgeted for: just 17,000 people. That followed a slow slide. After months of averaging roughly 60,000 riders a month, November saw just 34,000 riders and December just 32,000.

Part of the reason for January’s precipitous drop was the multiple days during which the streetcar didn’t run. The city has been withholding more than $4 million from CAF, which now says it will have to redesign and retest the faulty parts that caused that problem, a process that could take six months. There have been more than 50 vehicle issues over past 18 months chargeable to CAF. Some of those contributed to the 14 days during which vehicles didn’t run.

But even when it’s running, the streetcar has never met its contractually obligated headways — 12 minutes during peak times, 15 minutes during off times. That's improved, but has never gotten all the way up to snuff.

“Initially, we were pretty far off, but we’ve gotten better,” Juech told council. “We’re down to 13 minutes during peak times and 16 minutes off-peak.”

Matt Jacob, a regular streetcar rider who lives in OTR and works downtown, says it’s hard to depend on the streetcar for those reasons.

“I’ve ridden the streetcar more than 230 times,” he told council. “I’m seeing the issues on a day by day basis. Frankly, it’s really inconsistent. There are a lot of days when I try to take the streetcar and it’s not there, there’s an issue. It’s really frustrating trying to be a regular streetcar user and it not work out.”

The city is working on headway, Juech says, and has made some progress.  Part of that is cutting down times when the streetcar is blocked by traffic. Those numbers have been dropping every month since July, 2017. The city increased fines and saw a big drop in passenger and delivery vehicles causing blockages.

Still, streetcars are stopped roughly 1.5 times per day for two minutes or more. Half of those blockages come from three locations: Rhinegeist, the School for Creative and Performing Arts and Government Square. Why that last downtown location, Cincinnati’s bus hub?

Because Metro buses are now the biggest cause of streetcar traffic blockages, according to Juech.

One fix some council members are bullish on trying: signal prioritization, which would allow the streetcar to lead off like a base runner stealing bases, helping it with headway.

“A real solution would be to give, like almost every urban city does, signal priority to our buses and our streetcars,” Councilman Chris Seelbach, a big proponent of that measure, said. “It gives them a chance to get ahead of the traffic.”

Traffic flow could get better after a long-promised, roughly $750,000 traffic study the city commissioned is completed and its recommendations adopted. But don’t expect that study, which was initially slated to be released this spring, any time soon. It is now underway, but won’t be finished until next fall.

Council members also want to lean harder on Transdev to improve its service. But that too is complicated by the current management structure.

SORTA measures Transdev’s service on 16 metrics and can penalize them as much as 10 percent of the overall contract amount every month they don’t meet standards. Nearly every month of Transdev’s year and a half long tenure has been marked by a penalty, according to SORTA’s Director of Rail Services Paul Grether — many times the full ten percent.

But Transdev says it’s doing its best to resolve issues. Staff retention and recruiting for operators and management has been difficult, company representatives say.

The company’s onsite manager, Leslie Shaw, has been on the job since November. He’s the fifth person to hold that management position since the streetcar launched in September, 2016. Shaw previously worked with Detroit and Atlanta’s streetcars.

“The number one problem was the staffing,” Shaw says of his arrival in Cincinnati. “We didn’t even have enough operators to run service. We had supervisors running service. It’s been a very difficult task finding people who are interested in running the streetcar.”

Those staffing issues have impacted service and maintenance, Juech says, but the city nor SORTA has control over the day to day operations.

In the meantime, the streetcar faces an increasingly difficult path forward financially.

The city will spend $10 million on the streetcar in 2018 between debt and operations. Though Juech says this year the streetcar still has a cushion, it’s looking at deficits beginning in fiscal year 2019 (which begins July 1 this year) as fares and advertising revenue decline.

Making things more difficult: Funds from the city’s Voluntary Tax Incentive Contribution Agreement have taken longer to accrue than previously expected.

“VTICA is also delayed,” Juech told council. “Some of the projects haven’t been completed as fast. The auditor’s office hasn’t worked as fast as we would like. For this fiscal year, we’re still in a surplus. But as you start to look for the out years, we’ve got to turn around fares and advertising and collecting more or we’re going to have a structural budget issue. That’s a concern.”

Landsman asked for patience as council works to figure out the tangles and get the streetcar gliding in the right direction again.

“I know it’s been a tough few months," he told representatives from SORTA and Transdev, as well as city officials. "But those of you who have been in the trenches and working side by side on these issues, I just want to say thank you.”