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Cincinnati - March 2019

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Cincinnati — Blame City Hall

March 2019

An opinion piece published in bizjournals.com by retired developer John Schneider, a long time advocate of the Cincinnati streetcar, argues that transfering operational responsibiity for the streetcar from SORTA to City Hall is a mistake:

For no good reason, City Hall has taken over management of the streetcar from the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority. Our city has no experience managing a rail transit system. For good measure, the city appointed a lawyer with no transit experience to oversee the operation.

The truth is, under SORTA’s stewardship, the streetcar has powered-out of most of its early problems. Although its finances are sketchy, you don’t hear many complaints about the streetcar these days – other than the line should be longer. Year-over-year ridership has been rising over the past few months. The ticket machines work reliably now. Same with the real-time arrival messages at the stops. The city of Cincinnati owns the streetcars and declares that most of the warranty problems have been cured. Fare compliance is remarkably high.

Some things aren’t getting better. The city has never optimized a reliable pathway for the streetcar, so it’s slower than it ought to be. This won’t get better until Cincinnati joins the 21st century by re-timing downtown traffic signals for transit priority. Track blockages — 173 last month — are still a problem due to meager fines and poor enforcement. The streetcar was blocked 1,813 times in 2018; only 328 $50 tickets were written.

The city’s failure to accomplish these straightforward tasks should give us pause for deeper City Hall involvement. If they can’t put up some “Don’t Block the Tracks” signs, re-time the lights and write more parking tickets, is the city trustworthy and competent to oversee a fleet of five expensive computers on wheels?

The notion that the streetcar isn’t legitimate public transportation is rhetorical nonsense. While the Connector was built principally as a development tool, it is now Cincinnati’s most productive transit asset. Measured by the industry standard of passengers per revenue hour, the streetcar is 8 percent more productive than Metro’s best bus route —the Western Hills-Glenway bus, No. 33 — and 44 percent more productive than the combined average of Metro’s six best bus routes. As downtown stretches north and south, the streetcar addresses transit’s most intractable problem – the first and last mile of the trip. It will be an increasingly important asset as downtown continues to repopulate and parking becomes scarce and more expensive.

City governments typically pay for the construction and operation of streetcar systems but rely on regional transit agencies to manage them. Everyone would be better off if City Hall provided the Connector with a bulletproof funding steam for operations, handed the keys back to SORTA and called it a day in the streetcar business. Otherwise, the streetcar will endure as a wedge issue to infect Cincinnati politics for a long time.


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