Where will the streetcar go from here?

After a successful opening weekend, the city has just begun its fight for great public transit.

The Cincinnati streetcar’s opening weekend was a rousing success by any measure. But Cincinnati is just at the start of its fight for great public transit.

Long lines of eager passengers waited for their chance to try out the Cincinnati Bell Connector; local leaders — streetcar supporters and opponents alike — packed into ceremonial first-ride cars; and representatives from cities with new streetcars in operation and those still under construction came to town to participate in the festivities. Transit advocates from as far away as South Korea, England and Poland flew in to take part.

By the end of the weekend, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which operates the streetcar, reported more than 50,000 rides from Sept. 9-11, a number that dwarfed Kansas City’s first-weekend ridership total of 32,000, which was impressive in its own right. 

As the weekend went on, and more riders got on board, it was evident that there was a cross section of the community ready to enjoy the streetcar. The cars were packed, and downtowners and visitors alike enjoyed this modern transportation and the changing city, which many have yet to see up close. 

Even after the system began charging fares on Monday — it was free all weekend thanks to sponsorships — the streetcar hit its ridership goals, gliding almost 13,000 people around town from Monday through Thursday.

The previous Saturday afternoon, I found myself standing in typically close proximity to two older couples on the streetcar. To my left was a couple from Colerain who told me that they had not been downtown in years — they came for the streetcar opening and were enjoying going to a couple different restaurants, bars and Findlay Market. To my right was another older couple — they used to live in Clifton but had moved to Loveland when their kids were of school age, and they hadn’t been downtown in years, either. 

This is what transit does — it gets us out of our bubble of introversion. A suburban car-oriented lifestyle often means minimum human interaction. You go from your house bubble to your car bubble and then head to Kroger or Kenwood Towne Centre. If anyone other than a clerk talks to you, it will probably feel odd. 

Do I know you? Why are you talking to me?

We will find that some of the great benefits to come to our city and our people via the streetcar and additional forms of mass transit are the interactions that will happen among strangers — people coming together, sharing stories, sharing ideas, sharing business plans. As we do, our differences — age, neighborhood, ethnicity, race, socio-economic background — become less relevant. We become closer as a community and learn to appreciate each other more. 

The streetcar’s opening weekend clearly demonstrated wide-ranging interest in the project and the growing city. Which is why the big stumbling points for transit in Cincinnati that have been put in place by some of our myopic leaders are so frustrating.

The day after SORTA released the 50,000 opening-weekend ridership total, the city got an email from SORTA suggesting that the city increase streetcar service during Oktoberfest when more than 500,000 people were expected to descend on downtown. That set off a round of political wrangling and posturing.

Thanks to the Chamber of Commerce, which moved Oktoberfest to avoid conflicting with the streetcar, service was spared during the festival. But SORTA and City Hall still had to fight over a measly $20,000 to run four streetcars instead of two over the weekend to maintain 15-minute wait times. 

If certain streetcar detractors and those concerned with the cost of running it really cared about revenue, you would think they would do everything they could to take advantage of what will likely be the highest ridership weekends each and every year. 

Why hadn’t City Hall already agreed to increase service for major events that occur on weekends, which are considered “off peak?” 

Half a million people. Off peak. Hell, even Bengals games on Sundays should have increased service. 

You can thank our mayor, a long-time and committed roadblock to the streetcar, for some of these difficulties.

It’s difficult to take Mayor John Cranley’s leadership seriously when he continually stands in the way of such simple and — truth be told — financially sound planning. Cranley has been staunchly opposed to even studying an expanded Uptown route which, it should be noted, was already completely funded by federal money until Gov. John Kasich irresponsibly scrapped it in 2011 — $52 million, down the tubes. 

Such is the length transit opponents will go to sabotage a project. 

And, to that point, to sabotage transit in general. Kasich has presided over budgets that provide some of the lowest levels of transit spending of any state in the country. Ohio ranked 42nd in the nation in 2014 for spending on buses and other transit projects. That’s just 63 cents per person. Illinois spends more than $63 per person by comparison. 

That lack of fiscal support has put our city’s bus service in a crunch. Just days after the streetcar’s triumphant opening weekend, SORTA announced it would need to shore up a $1.3 million shortfall by forestalling needed projects and cutting staff for Metro, the city’s bus service. 

And even as some 75,000 jobs in the region remain unreachable by public transit, the transit authority’s leaders have admitted that its current financial situation is unsustainable.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. The city of San Diego on Sept. 15 — two days after local Cincinnati leaders bickered over $20,000 that would be partially covered by increased ridership — learned that it had won a $1 billion grant from the federal government to pay for a planned 10-mile light rail extension. 

That would have paid for a lot of rail in Cincinnati, including a potential tunnel to Uptown and beyond. 

But we have no expansion plan, and therefore we wait while other cities move forward in a robust fashion. 

A failure to plan. A plan to fail. 

As impressive and exciting as the Cincinnati streetcar’s opening weekend and early ridership numbers were, we clearly have a long way to go before the naysayers stop trying to hurt the project for their own political gain. 

DEREK BAUMAN is the southwest Ohio director for All Aboard Ohio, a statewide rail and public transportation advocacy organization, and an activist supporting urban Cincinnati. Contact Derek: [email protected] or @derekbauman.

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