Cincinnati to break ground on smaller streetcar starter route this fall

Today Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory and City Manager Milton Dohoney announced that the city will push forward with its modern streetcar project even with recent setbacks. The announcement included the debut of a new shortened phase one routing that will run from Fifth Street in the Central Business District to Henry Street in Over-the-Rhine just north of Findlay Market.

The 3.1-mile route will cost $95 million to build and $2.5 million annually to operate. City leaders currently have a total of $99.5 million to build the line, and have conservatively identified $4.1 million to operate the line annually. City leaders say that this will mean no money will be needed from the City’s General Fund for operations.

While some supporters have expressed discontent over the shortened Cincinnati Streetcar route, Mayor Mallory emphasized that the long-term vision has not changed.

“The vision for the project remains the same. We are going to build a streetcar that connected Downtown to Uptown, and then we are going to build out into the neighborhoods,” explained Mallory. “We are going to get started with the funding that we have in hand, but we must move forward in order to attract jobs and residents to our region.”

Project officials say that the shortened line will operate 18 hours a day, seven days a week and will utilize five streetcars instead of the original seven planned for the longer route. The shortened route, city leaders say, was chosen based on its unique ability to maximize economic investment.

“Over-the-Rhine and portions of the downtown area have some 500 vacant buildings, and it is where you have the bulk of the 95 acres of what today is surface parking,” City Manager Dohoney told the audience. “The explosiveness of the development potential rests in the area that we’re covering.”

City officials also announced that they are exploring the idea of running the streetcars on battery power instead of electricity. This technology is currently being examined for Washington D.C.’s modern streetcar system where concerns have come up over the use of overhead electric wires. Cincinnati officials believe that such a move would also reduce costs upfront and long-term.

The city says that it expects to break ground on the modern streetcar system this fall, and will simultaneously work to raise additional funds to build the system’s extension to uptown, and reconnect with The Banks to the south which in and of itself costs an additional $9 million.

“Clearly there is a need to expand the tax base. No one wants to pay more taxes, so we must find a proactive step to take to expand the existing tax base,” City Manager Dohoney explained. “A streetcar is one such tool to do that. There are people that have issues with this project, and there are folks that are responsible for moving this city forward. We are unapologetic advocates.”

  • Juan De Bonia

    Let the frenzied, passive-aggressive discussion begin!!!!

  • @Juan De Bonia – If you are going to ruin discussions, go to where it is accepted.

    @everyone – Let’s just ignore that comment and continue

    I expected the Vine Street hill to be cut out of phase 1, but I really didn’t see them cutting the Banks out of phase 1 too. Obviously there is just a general lack of money to bring the streetcar the extra 3 or 4 blocks, so I understand. Hopefully money is raise shortly to extend the line to the Banks and to Corryville.

    This is the first I have heard of a battery-powered streetcar. Do you know if there are any sources for information on these streetcars or any currently running (aside from the D.C. one that is not operational yet)? The only article I found is from 2007 and states that breaking would recharge the battery, but it would also need some overhead lines to recharge the rest in certain locations. This information could easily be outdated and a more effecient system could be in the talks for the Cincinnati Streetcar.

  • John

    The first installation of what is now known as the KinkiSharyo AmeriTram is operating in Nice, France. Several U.S. cities including Charlotte, Dallas, Washington DC and Salt Lake City are interested in it. It saves about $5 million per mile in electrical distribution costs, but the vehicles cost a little more than standard streetcars.

    KinkiSharyo is a highly-regarded manufacturer of rail vehicles and has provided light rail cars for Dallas, Phoenix and Seattle.

    One correction to Randy’s article: the city now has $99.5 million assembled for the project, not $98 million.

  • To answer my own question:

    This is a pretty good article about the DC streetcar from a year ago that details the debate between overhead wires and battery-powered streetcars. Still no guarantee that technology has not advanced since then, but it is a much better representation of the technology. I liked reading the article because the opponents to the overhead wires are not just saying that streetcars won’t do what they are predicted to do. They have an actual, reasonable objection to them (not saying I agree with the opponents, necessarily). The writers at the Enquirer should take a look at this article and learn how to honestly represent both sides of a story.

  • Aaron Watkins

    I’m excited to hear this news! I think that battery powered streetcars would be great as well, I hope to hear more about this in the near future. Is the groundbreaking still around the same time? The sooner the better.

  • grif

    Although slimmed down, this is a very good thing. It’s a little disappointing that the line won’t go to the riverfront, but I understand the reasoning behind it. For the city to be able to build a much needed and viable transportation system to link downtown and OTR and to be able to cover the operating costs for a year or two will give them some time to collect money for expansion.

    The streetcar will solve one of the biggest challenges that people who live outside of downtown and OTR have and that’s being able to get around hassle-free. To be able to take Metro to Government Square and hop on the streetcar to eat, be entertained, and do some shopping means that I for one would spend a lot more time downtown. This is good for business, for residents, and for visitors.

    The battery powered streetcars sound like a very good idea. I wonder how long it takes for them to pay for themselves? If Duke’s estimate of $20 million is accurate, I would say not long at all.

  • Juan De Bonia

    @tboondoggle – lighten up. It was a joke, honey.

  • Matt Jacob

    The shortening of the route was inevitable once King Kasich poisoned the funding waters in Columbus, and while most assumed that the Banks would still be a part of the initial phase, it is actually fiscally prudent of city council to shorten it further and still get a quality product rather than jeopardize its long-term success. As many have pointed out in the past, it’s not a bridge that you must complete all at once to use, but can be pieced together over time. We need to start somewhere and hopefully it will allow many of the doubters to get over the hump.

  • Matt Jacob

    I’m also glad that battery power is being given serious thought. It makes sense. Less maintenance of power lines and taking advantage of Cincinnati’s hills by recharging with green energy means lower operating costs. Why not recharge the batteries at the zoo’s new solar panels after the hike up the hill? And of course this idea also allows better visibility of the city’s historic assets as well. I’d love to see Cincinnati be the first American city to implement this technology of the future into their transportation network. Then we’ll be the envy of Portland, whose tangled in wires.

    “What they do in Portland — we’re not living in Portland. And by the way, I don’t want to live in Portland.” -John Kasich

    I want to live in Cincinnati with battery powered streetcars.

  • @John: Thanks for the correction. My apologies for any misunderstanding.

    @Matt Jacob: I wouldn’t say that Portland is “tangled in wires.” The overhead wires for streetcars are barely noticeable…especially when compared to the amount of overhead wires that used to be required for the streetcars of yesteryear.

  • Joe

    Thank you, Mayor Mallory for a strategic and fiscally prudent compromise that I feel is much easier to justify than the extended route to Uptown. The extended route costing somewhere in the ballpark of $180 million was far too ambitious and costly for the city at this time with all the budget shortfalls and layoffs. Now the city can build the streetcar in more manageable segments and we will be able to do a test run to see if this investment was worthwhile and if ridership projections will hold up. We will also be able to see if all the comparisons that Randy has made with Charlotte, Denver, and Portland will hold up. Personally I expect that they will not due to the differences in regional economy, density, and transit options found in these other cities but not in Cincinnati and that the streetcar will be moderately successful but not the huge success that many supporters envision. By this shorter route we are not putting all our chips on the table and can learn how this unique streetcar in a unique context will work and how best we can invest in additional segments or that we should change focus to a comprehensive bus rapid transit system. Cincinnati cannot afford another “disaster” like the subway with money being so tight and this segment (if it is successful) will help cultivate support for further extensions.

  • @Joe: Prior to the construction of Charlotte’s starter rail line, they had no rail transit at all (just like Cincinnati now). The difference is that Charlotte is now talking about how they should expand their light rail line, and how to add streetcar service.

    Cincinnati’s economic reports do not predict the type of return seen in Portland, so that is kind of a wash. The good thing is that the economic returns anticipated for Cincinnati are still tremendous even though they don’t match what has been seen in Portland.

  • Zack

    @Joe: what comparisons are those that Randy made (just so we know what to expect from you regardless of the outcome in say, 5 years)?

    And given that the city is still going despite the subway “disaster”, id say they can survive just fine.

  • @Zack: I cannot speak for Joe, but I would assume he is referencing the following story where I highlighted the findings of a TOD report.

    At that time Joe took issue with the comparisons with any other non-Rust Belt city. He also took issues with comparing Cincinnati’s urban circulator streetcar route with other urban circulator streetcar routes or portions of light rail lines that operate as circulators.

  • Any idea what battery replacement times / costs are?
    I would imagine the Greens will have aneurisms over this.

  • @Joe:

    I’m glad to see a skeptic support a “try and see” approach. Much better to hear than the “kill at all costs” line most in the anti-rail crowd are screaming.

    While I’m optimistic it will meet or even exceed expectations, you’re right in that a small, finished system is better than a large, unfinished one.

    The most unsuccessful transit system is no transit system.

  • Joe

    @Zack – “And given that the city is still going despite the subway “disaster”, id say they can survive just fine.”
    It took decades for the city to recover from the financial strain that the subway project placed upon the budget and they were still paying off the bonds until the 1960’s. Also they had to fill it in and they are still maintaining it to this day at a substantial cost. If this is surviving I would hate to see what your idea of a disaster is. The subway fiasco almost a hundred years ago still has a profound psychological effect on the city and its residents. Maybe this is why so many people are so concerned about large investments in transit like the streetcar.

  • Zack

    @Joe “The subway fiasco almost a hundred years ago still has a profound psychological effect on the city and its residents. Maybe this is why so many people are so concerned about large investments in transit like the streetcar. ”

    I suppose you could spin “psychological effect” any way you want. I doubt any decision I made this week was due to the subway’s failure.

    Furthermore, many of “those concerned” have no problem with a $1B+ Spence bridge that serves 0 % downtown development, so I would say they are picking and choosing their investment concerns as they see fit.

  • John Schneider

    ^ Try $2 or $3 billion for the Brent Spence and all the associated work.

    I think it’s interesting that three economic studies of the streetcar conducted over several years have all found a high level of benefits in relation to the streetcar’s cost, yet no one has ever even thought to ask that a similar study be conducted for the new Brent Spence.

    Then there’s this: the city will soon begin construction on the Walvogel Viaduct and the Kennedy Connector. They will cost, in the aggregate, $91 million — almost as much as the streetcar. Anyone even know what those are, where they are, or anything at all about them? I’m sure Chris Finney and Chris Smitherman have conducted their due-diligence on them.

    Always remember, with rail opponents, it’s seldom the money that they are really concerned about, or they would be probing into the corners of many other infrastructure projects which cost a lot and may or may not have benefits that equal their costs. They complain about rail’s cost, but in reality, their complaint is that it just doesn’t comport with their view of how the world should work.

  • Best quote of the day from Dohoney:

    “There are people that have issues with this project, and there are folks that are responsible for moving this city forward. “

  • Jeff

    Great comment John. That may explain why opposition to rail is so vehement while other multi-million dollar projects go completely unnoticed or unchallenged.

  • Tim B

    I like the streetcar better without state money involved. At least this way, the city is paying the majority of the costs of a highly city-focused project. Now, and only now, has it become more realistic to say, “Go ahead, city, spend ‘your’ money how you want.’

    I also like the battery idea — especially if that helps solve some of the Duke-related utility costs problems. If and when the starter tracks get built, we shall see about the economic development value. And we will know whether the thing is worth expanding.

    Meanwhile, I think the shorter route by definition needs to have its ridership and economic impact projections ratcheted down. I hope such paperwork is completed before construction begins — but I’m not holding my breath. I think the true believers don’t care about the projections as long as something gets built.

    Meanwhile, will you folks please stop with the utterly irrelevant attempts to compare the streetcar to the I-75 bridge replacement? The I-75 bridge is a crucial river crossing for one of the nation’s longest, busiest and utterly vital highways. It may be over-priced or strangely slow to get moving, I have no idea. However, the project has very little to do with Cincinnati’s downtown development — other than to be planned in such a way as to minimize disruption. It’s a national and state-level project being paid for with national and state dollars — as it should be.

    That bridge is so much more important than the streetcar that even discussing them in the same sentence seems silly. It’s like comparing a slingshot and a nuclear missile. Please tell me that the radical highway-haters on this site aren’t so deluded to seriously contend that we don’t need that bridge.

  • John

    Tim Bonfield: I don’t think people on this blog are anti-highway. I’m certainly not, having led the business community’s effort to reconfigure Fort Washington Way and open up the new riverfront to development. That’s still the largest highway project completed in a generation around here.

    But the truth is, we’re well into realm of diminishing returns on highway projects, many of which are now well below the rates of return on private projects. Times change. We now have 47,000 miles of Interstate Highways, up a good bit from the 35,000 President Eisenhower originally proposed in the 1950’s. It’s not like we still are opening up the Deep South and the Intermountain West to commerce, as was the case with the construction of the IHS in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Todd Litman, an economist who runs the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, has written about this. You could look it up.

    I remember a very interesting article I read maybe ten years ago concerning the replacement of the Washington D.C.-area Woodrow Wilson Bridge (I-95) and associated ramps and other access highways. As I recall it, some enterprising researcher got into the environmental documents associated with the project and came to this conclusion: if you added-up all the hours of travel delay caused by construction and assessed a value to them, they exceeded the present value of all the future savings motorists would gain once the project was finished. I’m sure there were safety and other valuable improvements, but basically you could conclude that we would have been just as well off if the Feds had left the money in the bank.

    But you don’t need to look as far as the East Coast for an example. You can find one right here. I-75 now operates at Service Level “D” — which is just what you think it is, almost failing. But when all the widening is done in a decade or so, after spending a billion dollars not counting the cost of the new Brent Spence, it will still be a “D” because of all the induced traffic demand including a more than doubling of the truck traffic.

    My point is, we hold transit and other alternative mobility investments to strict benefit/cost criteria, but we seldom view highways through the same lens – simply, I think, because highway solutions are the conventional wisdom we’ve all come to accept, however wise or unwise they turn out to be in the long run.

  • Tim B


    You don’t think people on this blog are anti-highway? Really?

    Zack: Furthermore, many of “those concerned” have no problem with a $1B+ Spence bridge that serves 0 % downtown development…

    Jeff: Great comment John. That may explain why opposition to rail is so vehement while other multi-million dollar projects go completely unnoticed or unchallenged.

    And that’s just comments on this thread. Just bring up the I-74 extension project, and you can see anti-highway attitudes in full bloom. But that’s OK, really. A lot of preaching to the converted is to be expected in a forum called UrbanCincy — an otherwise interesting site that I mostly enjoy.

    But some things said here are very hard to let pass without challenge. The snarky, dismissive comments about the bridge project are among them.

    Replacing the I-75 bridge is not an extension of the highway culture, nor a catalyst for sprawl. (you have a better chance of winning that point by opposing the I-74 proposal) In fact, the I-75 bridge project is an unavoidable repair/upgrade for a fundamentally necessary piece of our transportation network. Aside from allegations of fraud or mismanagement, claiming that the money spent on the bridge would be a waste is a complete falsehood. Likewise, assuming that the bridge will become crowded again at some point in the future is no reason at all for not replacing it. The need for the bridge is clear and obvious. To find out how important, try shutting it down.

    Meanwhile, no streetcar plan on the Ohio side will do the slightest thing to ease that bridge traffic. Maybe a light rail line that croses the river — at a cost of a couple billion dollars — would take a few cars off the highway, but not any large percentage. Certainly not enough to prevent replacing the bridge.

    So instead of absorbing the unpleasant and massive cost of fixing a bridge, light rail fans seem to expect taxpayers to double down by also spending massively on light rail.

  • adam

    the entire cost of the short-route streetcar is a rounding error or 3-5% cost overrun to a 2-3B bridge project.

    Any induced demand due to a streetcar on CBD/OTR occupancy is pure economic goodies to the City of Cincinnati since it increases the tax base and basically already has all the infrastructure it needs down there. OTOH, Brent Spence was sized perfectly for regional travel through NKY/OH when it was built but opening up that pass induced the current NKY sprawl that maxed out the bridge during commuter spikes. If you are traveling regionally or nationally just take 275 around the city during rush hour like any sane (chronometrically efficient?) person would through any city in the country.

  • Marshal

    Tim B,

    I don’t understand why you would come into this article and spout thinly veiled insults at people who post here unless the Streetcar was a real craw in your butt. You also clearly have no idea what the real spectrum of attitudes is about American transportation, or you would realize that the readers here who point out irresponsible highway costs are way down the radical spectrum from those who want to entirely remove the urban interstates. Yes, there are people like that. In fact, some of them present some fascinating – if not entirely compelling – evidence.

    The reality is, you are speaking from such an entrenched philosophy that you don’t even seem to know the shape and size of the issue that you are trying to be reasonable about. That’s not an offense to you, honestly. Most people are right there with you. And I do think you are trying to be reasonable – just uninformed.

  • Tim,

    I don’t see how comparing the cost of the streetcar to the Brent Spence bridge makes people anti-highway. It’s simply an easy way to get a grasp how much money $100 million is. And the answer is, in terms of transportation dollars: not much.

  • @Tim B: For what it’s worth, I support replacing the Brent Spence Bridge. In general I believe the United States needs to be investing a lot more into its infrastructure than what it currently is. Infrastructure spending as a percentage of GDP has dropped significantly over the last couple of decades, and our infrastructure is crumbling as a result. We need to be maintaining our existing infrastructure, and investing in new forms of transport that can lessen the burden on our existing networks. That’s a diversified approach that will actually work.

  • I think the problem comes down to the way these things are engrained in our collective minds. Highway improvements have always been touted as “necessary investments” whereas rail and mass transit improvements are typically labeled “wasteful spending” or “boondoggles.”

    The oil and auto industry were so successful in selling the whole car dependent lifestyle to America that many of us never bothered to pay attention to the hidden costs of the large scale adaption of the new auto-dependent economy. That economy is breaking down now because of high gas prices, home foreclosures, higher environmental awareness and the demand of a largely younger generation wanting to live in walkable neighborhoods with car-lite or car-free lifestyles. That’s the appeal of the streetcar but it gets labeled as a waste by interest groups interested in preserving the false narrative of the car dependent lifestyle.

    Most people here use the Brent Spence Bridge but really you can take any highway project. These projects are supposedly financed through the gas tax, but for the past several years, the state and federal governments have used money from somewhere else to cover the gap created by declining gas tax revenues. Rail opponents always demand that rail projects be self-financing but fail to realize that road projects would not pass the same test. So many people use the example not because they are against highways per se, but they recognize the disparity in the treatment between the two.

  • Jacob

    Tim B

    I personally am not anti-highway, they are necessary for moving goods & people. They work best when the demand they are serving is fairly consistent or serves a vital link which is not easily provided otherwise. I am anti-highway widening, & especially anti-urban-highway, because this only is done to highways which are congested, highways that are serving an insatiable demand. Access to a regions core is and always will be a service in high demand, properly managing that demand does not always require a highway.

    A series of well managed 4 lane boulevards providing access to the city center for truck and other commercial traffic, along with reliable high capacity transit systems providing consistent access for residents to the city center would serve the same purposes as the highways that are constantly widened in order to stay ahead of the commuter demand that they induce.

    Bridges are entirely different, they are vital life lines to an economy like Cincinnati’s, but a bridge incorporated seamlessly into a highway through the heart of the city inherits all of the flaws of the highway. The Brent Spence is entirely necessary for supplying the high demand for goods crossing the Ohio, but with 74/71/75 it is supplying a service not integral to the city, but necessary within the region: the movement of goods from one edge of the region to the other. A service which is served by 275/Cross County/Norwood Lateral/the future Red Bank Expressway.

    Sadly, without a transit system to move residents around the region as well as too and from Downtown; 74/75, 471, and 71 from Norwood to 275, are all necessary evils. Ones we could rid ourselves of, and replace with human scaled roads and reliable transit, if we only had the vision.