Breaking Down Cincinnati’s Eastern Corridor Passenger Rail Plan

The Eastern Corridor project, a multi-modal highway and commuter rail plan for eastern Hamilton County, is back in the news. Two weeks ago Cincinnati City Council voted against endorsing a TIGER II grant application seeking funds for the plan’s 17-mile commuter rail component.

The local media predictably turned this event into another city-county dispute, and insinuated that the TIGER II grant might alone fund construction of the entire Milford commuter rail line, which in 2003 was estimated to cost $420 million. There is no possibility of this happening, as Milford commuter rail would need to be awarded approximately two-thirds of the entire $600 million sum to be dispersed nationwide by the TIGER II program.

The media also ignored the Eastern Corridor plan’s central feature – four miles of the Milford commuter rail line is planned to be built parallel to a new $500 million U.S. 32 expressway between Red Bank Road and a point east of Newtown. The 1990’s cost estimate for Milford commuter rail included the savings associated with building a combined highway and rail project, including a new shared eight-lane bridge over the Little Miami River. The cost of building the commuter line first without provision for the future highway has not been studied.

The Oasis Line
Between downtown Cincinnati and the proposed eight-lane bridge over the Little Miami River, the Milford commuter rail is planned to operate on an eight-mile stretch of track paralleling the Ohio River known as the “Oasis Line.” In the late 1980’s the L&N Bridge (now the Purple People Bridge) was closed to freight rail traffic, and thus ended the operation of large trains along the Oasis Line. Since that time, traffic has been limited to a handful of freight cars per week, and the Cincinnati Dinner Train on weekends.

At first glance it would appear that implementation of commuter rail service on the Oasis Line should require nothing more than the purchase of commuter trains and the construction of a connection between the end of active tracks and the Riverfront Transit Center. Unfortunately, the poor condition of the existing track limits traffic to a maximum twelve miles per hour, meaning all eight miles between the Montgomery Inn Boathouse and Red Bank Road must be rebuilt. It is also probable that the Riverfront Transit Center connection must be built at least partially through Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point. All of this new track must be heavy freight railroad track, not the smaller and less expensive track used by light rail trains and modern streetcars.

Even after this needed investment in new track, grade crossings will remain at a half-dozen locations along Riverside Drive and in Columbia Tusculum, where perfunctory horn blasts will disturb those residing in new condos along Riverside Drive, longtime residents atop Mt. Adams and East Walnut Hills, and will surely be audible across the river in Bellevue and Dayton.

Poor Station Locations
Residents of Riverside Drive will be able to hear the Milford commuter rail trains, but most will not live within easy walking distance of the line’s stations. Of five stations proposed along the Oasis Line, only one, Delta Avenue in historic Columbia Tusculum, can be considered auspicious. By contrast, little existing ridership or future development exists around either the proposed Theodore Berry Park or the Cincinnati Waterworks (downhill from Torrence Parkway) stations. Ridership at the proposed Lunken Airport station will be minimal, and the Beechmont Avenue station will primarily serve as a bus transfer point.

On top of this minimal ridership, Riverside Drive is already served by Metro’s #28 bus. If Milford commuter rail is built, this bus will still have to operate due to the infrequent service and long distances between stations along the Oasis Line. It is also likely that Metro’s #28X, which serves Mariemont and Terrace Park en route to Milford, will have to continue operations as well.

An alternative proposal that called for streetcar or light rail service between downtown and Lunken Airport could eliminate the need for the #28 bus route, thus freeing up resources for bus service elsewhere. In this scenario significant savings would be achieved due to the considerably lower track costs for streetcars and light rail when compared to the freight railroad track currently proposed for the Milford commuter rail. Additionally, the vehicles are much quieter because they are electrically powered, labor costs are halved because they require just one driver, and more stops could be placed at much closer intervals.

High Operations Costs
No funding source has been identified to cover the outrageous annual operating costs for Milford commuter rail. In 2004 its annual operations were estimated to be $18.9 million — a sum similar to the estimated annual operating cost of the proposed 250-mile 3C Corridor passenger rail service between Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland.

The cause of these exorbitant operating costs is an alarming combination of mediocre ridership and high labor costs. A 2002 report projected approximately 6,000 weekday trips (3,000 commuters) along the Oasis Line at full build-out. For comparison, this ridership figure is roughly equivalent to Metro’s most popular bus routes. At the same time, the FTA requires a crew of two onboard all diesel commuter trains that operate on freight tracks, even for the small Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) planned for the Eastern Corridor, due to safety regulations.

By comparison, the Cincinnati Streetcar as presently planned will cost approximately $128 million to construct, require $3 million per year to operate, and will attract similar or higher daily ridership with 15 fewer route miles of track. Last month, city officials were notified that the Cincinnati Streetcar was awarded a $25 million Urban Circulator grant. If an identical amount were hypothetically awarded to the Eastern Corridor project through TIGER II, it would cover so little of the much more expensive Milford commuter rail that no construction would even be able to take place. Meanwhile, an additional $25 million put towards the Cincinnati Streetcar could extend the line into Avondale or Walnut Hills immediately. This means a potential grant for the Milford commuter rail might sit in the county treasury for a decade or more, or through tricky accounting be integrated into the Eastern Corridor project’s highway funding.

The Wasson Line
An alternative rail route to eastern Hamilton County involves use of the Wasson Line, which joins the Oasis Line near Red Bank Road but travels a very different path between that point and downtown Cincinnati. This route is eight miles – the exact same distance as the Oasis Line – but promises much higher ridership and much lower operational costs.

Since all freight operations ceased on the Wasson Line in 2009, electric light rail vehicles staffed by a single driver can be used at considerable cost savings over diesel commuter trains needed on the Oasis Line. Proposed station locations at Xavier University, Montgomery Road, Edwards Road, and Paxton Avenue each promise higher initial ridership — in 2002 the Wasson Line was estimated to attract 20,000 daily riders, or triple that of Milford commuter rail.

Also different from the Oasis Line, redevelopment potential exists around all of the stations locations along the Wasson Line, but especially the 25-acre parallelogram-shaped parcel recently assembled by Xavier University between its campus and Montgomery Road. The abandoned Wasson Road Railroad bisects this property and converges with the similarly abandoned CL&N railroad at the present edge of Xavier’s campus. The particular junction played a major role in the 2002 MetroMoves regional rail plan due to the convergence of several regional lines on their way into downtown along shared Gilbert Avenue tracks.

The Edward Road station is another location superior to anything on the Oasis Line. It is located within walking distance of Hyde Park Square and the majority of the neighborhood’s population. The station would be placed adjacent to, or across the street from, Rookwood Commons shopping center, and just a three-minute walk from the undeveloped Rookwood Exchange site north of Edmondson Road.

The Wasson Line has decisive cost-benefit advantages over the Oasis Line, but it obviously cannot function without a connection between Xavier University and downtown. After completion of the Cincinnati Streetcar, construction of a light rail connection between these points should be a top priority. This section alone promises the highest per-mile transit ridership in the metro area, and reaching Xavier University allows construction of three light rail branches, on existing railroad right-of-way, as funds permit.

Regional Priorities
It is unclear why construction of the Eastern Corridor project is any kind of priority. Much of the expense will be borne by Hamilton County, but with parts of the highway and rail line traveling over the undevelopable Little Miami River flood plain, the new expressway and perhaps even the rail line will act to encourage sprawl in Clermont County. Even the terminal station for the Milford commuter rail will not be in Milford’s town center, where it would be within walking distance of several hundred residents, but rather two miles away at Milford Parkway, home to Wal-Mart, Target, and chain sports bars.

Anti-rail forces are fond of saying that rail advocates will support anything that runs on rails. But advocates of better public transportation know that funds for rail projects are scarce and must be applied where the best cost-benefit exists. Moreover, the best transit mode must be chosen for each route. In the case of inner-city rail to Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs, diesel commuter rail along the Oasis Line is not the best solution, but rather, light rail service along the Wasson Line is.

  • Thank you for your in-depth analysis on the Eastern Corridor project. I have pretty much given up on local media like The Enquirer as they move more to tabloid journalism to increase their revenues. It’s good to know there is a place to get actual facts and well researched opinions.

  • Gotta admit, never expected to see UrbanCincy ripping apart a rail plan. Keep up the good work! We’ll have to make you an honorary COASTer.

  • L. Q.

    Urbancincy didn’t just point out the flaws in this plan, they actually proposed an alternative. That puts them way ahead of any COAST-like knee jerk opposition.

  • COAST:

    UrbanCincy supports what is best for the city/region. Simply put, DMUs running along the Oasis Line is not it. With that said, light rail running along the Wasson Line would be a terrific option to provide rail service to Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs.

    The Wasson Line would have better ridership, greater economic impact, lower operating costs, and lower capital costs. Plus the environmental impacts would be significantly less since it would not need another crossing over the Little Miami River, and would not run through a flood plain. Oh yeah, and light rail on the Wasson Line would be less noisy, and have no direct emissions unlike DMUs on the Oasis Line.

    COAST should support light rail along the Wasson Line. Are you willing to give it your endorsement?

  • The disturbing part about smaller cities like ours in the midwest prioritizing commuter lines, is that the costs associated with constructing and operating them is far disproportionate to other alignments the prioritize denser neighborhoods closer to the urban core. We are starting to see how this has failed other regions that have put a lot of their transportation stock in the “regional” vision like Dallas and Charlotte (and even Portland on their WES line) who are putting a lot of effort into tailoring service, or long term planning, to suburban locations with a low (or no) return on investment.

    I wonder if many policy makers, planners and such have hedged too much on the support of the suburban affluent demographic? There is nothing wrong with having those on board but the fact is, majority buy in is low, and the urban population gets jilted at the same time. Its a tough balance to maintain

  • Jake, thanks so much for this wonderful breakdown. This is one of the most informative posts I’ve come across in a long while. As I’ve been telling people lately, If UrbanCincy/Randy Simes, John Schneider, and Roxanne Qualls all don’t like a Cincinnati rail plan, you know that it is bad news.

  • Cygnus

    Great article – Quick note: 28X is now known as 29X

  • CC

    I am one who always agreed that ridership is better along Wasson-Paxton and that any attempt to develop the Oasis line needed to include a connection into W-P. However, I challenge those who strongly oppose commuter rail to the eastern suburbs to come up with a plan that helps Newport protect its historic neighborhoods from the planned expansion of I-471. OKI planners, as always, favor a highway widening project to a transit-oriented project.

    And if the plans to kill an eastern corridor commuter rail project are successful, the road builders will get their way with a major new four-lane highway shoe-horned between US 50 and State Route 32 that will absolutely destroy the village of Newtown. I don’t understand why you’re working so hard to protect developers who knew all along there was a rail line next to their precious condos and ignoring the needs to have been heavily invested in their communities for over 100 years.

  • Jon Moller

    Great article! I’d love to see an I-71/Wasson LRT line to Milford instead of this weird Oasis line proposal. That line would serve many more people. The Oasis line should be left for the 3CD corridor.

  • Jon Moller

    This reminds me of commuter rail in Austin (Capital Metrorail). Only a few thousand people use it each day. It takes a route through eastern Austin, in areas of relatively low population density. The line would have been much more frequented had it used Guadalupe Avenue, taking it through the densest corridor of the region.

  • L. Q.
  • Zachary Schunn

    Great post! Bookmarking and sharing.

    I have a proposal, though: why doesn’t the city study the daily ridership rates of various rail plans, and only pursue those with the highest ridership percentages? For example, my hunch is that ridership rates would be higher (at least by percentage, if not also by total) around uptown and downtown, with eastern and northern suburbs seeing less support.

    I know there are a lot of factors in planning rail routes (cost seemingly being most important)… but wouldn’t it make sense to start building trains where people (and developers) WANT trains? It would be interesting to study past ballot initiatives (such as Issue 9 last year and MetroMoves in 2002), to see, generally, what areas have the most and least support for rail transit.

  • Nathan Strieter

    Zach, that is pretty much what the city has done by moving forward with initiatives for individual streetcar lines, which will be added to as support and funding grow by neighborhood.

    Yet, everyone is taxed for the lines and that causes problems when plans come to vote. Cincinnati for the most part does not have a proximity of population dense pockets to pull off exactly what you suggest. Furthermore, regional rail plans like the Eastern Corridor, face complications because of County involvement (ie 3,000 riders might be viewed as a great number on the county scale vs the city perspective which would expect more riders).

    When planning routes, the city also hopes to increase future amount of persons who could be located along specific lines. In this case they do not solely base success of the line on the initial ridership, as you seem to advocate, but they often split that ridership success with the economic development and city population increase generated by the proposed line.

    The Wasson line would seem to be poised for more success on all accounts. The Oasis Line might be a money pit but the first 3-4 miles of its eastern route is extremely intriguing for the prospect of development along what is a residentially underdeveloped corridor. As SORTA and the city work to reroute bus traffic and establish real bus stations outside of Government Plaza (I seriously can’t contain my excitement on that), it might be in their benefit to consider a small station near Mt. Lookout with a dedicated route to Riverfront Transit Center. The River Road/Eastern Prkwy route would do well to encourage development via express service to covered stops along these first 3 Oasis Line miles.

  • Nathan:

    Much of the area along the first 3-4 miles of the Oasis Line is not able to be developed due to hillsides or floodplains. There is some area, but not a significant amount in my opinion.

  • Zachary:

    Rail transit serving Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs is a very worthwhile endeavor due to the limited access these areas have to the region’s primary job centers (downtown and uptown). Columbia Parkway also often has troubles with hillslides, or traffic accidents that can quickly cripple traffic along the primary corridor serving the east side.

    As a result, rail transit becomes very attractive and needed for this particular area. Obviously light rail running through the center city would also be very attractive, but for now there is the Cincinnati Streetcar that will at least serve the center city neighborhoods.

  • Nate Wessel

    Great analysis! Thank you.

  • B. W.

    Great article. I agree with Curt up above, that light rail is not as cost effective based on our current housing densities outside of the core city neighborhoods. I was not sure of streetcars at first, (when I was a fan of ligth rail) but after some research and finding some great articles like the one above, I think that streetcars are the best way to go for our city. I am not an expert but I think streetcars could go as far as Kenwood or Westwood and still be just as fast as light rail and much less costly. I also think that we will see some form of Bus Rapid Transit take shape in the near future.

  • John Schneider

    If you avoid the confusion between “route miles” and “track miles” and look at an honest apples-to-apples comparison, modern streetcars cost about two-thirds as much as light rail, and they perform about two-thirds as well in terms of capacity and speed. However, you get much higher economic development benefits with streetcars. Streetcars would not be suitable for travel between, say, downtown and Kenwood. Westwood would be a stretch. So would Oakley.

  • B. W.

    Could we have a hybrid streetcar that runs on both the road and segregated tracks in Cincinnati? I believe this would speed up the timing a bit but still allow development to take place. Are there any routes in Cincinnati where this would work?

  • Tim Ruffner

    Thank you for this highly informative piece. As an Uptown resident, to me the streetcar (and even its mainline track placements) are of major importance to the future of these essential yet aged neighborhoods. I am glad to have this information as well as the additional viewpoint on the Wasson line.

  • COAST

    Nice to see so many commenters agreeing with us about the cost ineffectiveness of light rail. Good thing we voted it down in 2002. Otherwise we’d currently be stuck with another boondoggle sucking more money out of our economy. Now if we could just trade-in the trolley for BRT…

  • CC

    The emphasis on ridership and population density is intriguing, because the streetcar advocates insisted the only way to get economic development (their primary goal) was to “build it where they ain’t.” But those same advocates turn around and criticize Oasis because of low population densities. That’s not consistent. Ultimately, any rationale transportation network must get people to/from Downtown and Uptown. That’s why coordinating the Eastern Corridor Rail with the 3C passenger ail and the streetcar makes the most sense.

    Plan a regional system that connects. That’s efficient, and that’s a worthwhile investment of our tax dollars. After weeks of smog alerts and heat alerts, I would think at least some COASTers would appreciate the investment in transportation choices would decrease our health care costs as well as the expense of driving and parking.

  • John Schneider

    ^ COAST, don’t flatter yourself.

  • B. W.

    CC, I can understand what you perceive as a double standard, but as Randy and others have mentioned, half of the Oasis line will never be buildable ever due to hillside and floodplain regulations. And some of those communities where it would stop would fight higher densities tooth and nail and the success of streetcars and lightrail is dependent on increasing density. But I definitely agree that an updated Regional Transportation Plan is severly needed.

  • CC:

    Much of the Oasis Line is unbuildable (as illustrated in this article). So it’s a completely different situation from “building it where they ain’t” like the Cincinnati Streetcar.

    Cincinnati does need rail transit to its eastern suburbs, but it should not come in the form of an antiquainted DMU train operating along a line with extraordinarily low ridership projections, unnecessarily high operating costs, and little potential for economic development around station locations.

    We tried to look at this issue pragmatically, and our analysis tells us that the Wasson Line is far superior to the Oasis Line when it comes to serving Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs with rail transit.

  • As for the discussion about population densities in Cincinnati…

    You do not need widespread, high-density areas to make rail transit successful. Yes, places like NYC, Chicago, and DC have this, but there are other models to make it work. In Cincinnati case most transit people agree that the city is extremely well developed to support a regional rail transit system. This is due to the concentrated densities along specific corridors, and in specific pockets.

    The example is that you may have huge population densities in one area, but if it can not be served by rail transit, then it doesn’t really matter what that density is. But, in Cincinnati’s case, the high-density regions are all set up to be well-served by rail transit.

    Also, Cincinnati has higher densities than most cities in America when looking at its city neighborhoods. When you factor out unbuildable area like hillsides and floodplains, then you begin to see a clearer picture. Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills, West End, Camp Washington, Downtown, Mt. Adams, Mt. Auburn, and Clifton Heights are all rarities in the Midwest, and throughout much of the United States.

    But also consider the fact that Norwood (and a half-dozen other like areas) is several miles outside of the city center, and still provides high-density populations.

    The fact is that Cincinnati does boast high population densities that are even higher than several cities that have extremely successful rail transit networks. You can make the case that not every city is well-suited for rail transit due to ROI, but Cincinnati does not fall into that category.

  • Robert

    First of all, COAST (supporter of the initial stadium tax), the issue here is heavy, diesel pulled trains. Light rail is another issue altogether. And, despite the lies and scare tactics in 2002, the areas where light rail was going would be speculator heaven with increasing property values.

    Still, regular commuter rail as envisioned in the Corridor maps is indeed an expensive waste. The routes and stations just ain’t where the people are (except maybe Lunken and Newtown). The streetcar makes much more sense and I’m not sure that’s such a great idea.

    Simes is right. The density corridors are there, just not for heavy commuter rail. It’s the will and, to a lesser extent, the topography that keeps this area from a decent light rial system that similar sized towns like St. Louis and Portland, OR have successfully built.

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