GUEST EDITORIAL: Those “streetcar” rails going down on Elm Street are actually light rail tracks

A couple of years ago, an engineer designing our streetcar mentioned Cincinnati wouldn’t be installing the type of streetcar rail used in Seattle and Portland because that Austrian-made product doesn’t comply with “Buy America” requirements. He said not to worry, that the type of rail Cincinnati would be using would open up more possibilities for the future. I never thought much more about it …

… until a couple of weeks ago when I studied the end-profile of the rail they’re installing on Elm Street right now. I could see it wasn’t the streetcar rail I’m used to seeing in the Pacific Northwest. It was common “T” rail used on all kinds of rail systems across the country. So I called my engineer friend and others associated with the project, and sure enough, Cincinnati is building tracks through Over-the-Rhine today that can someday host light rail trains.

There is a similar story in Tacoma, which wants light rail to Seattle someday. Tacoma built its “streetcar tracks” to light rail specs and is now running streetcars similar to ours until the time is ripe for light rail. You can look it up: Google “Tacoma Link Light Rail”. You’ll see pictures of streetcars, not full-on light rail trains.

What Cincinnati is building on Elm Street today could easily become the light rail spine through the heart of the region, slicing diagonally across the downtown basin with seven Fortune 500 corporations, two-thirds of our region’s cultural institutions and thousands of potential new homes within a few blocks of the line.

Prowling around the web site of our streetcar-manufacturer, CAF, I found this. This is the Cincinnati Streetcar, which CAF calls a light rail vehicle (LRV). Cincinnati is buying five of these three-section Urbos vehicles shown here, but CAF makes five- and seven-section Urbos too. Even nine-section ones if you need to move enough passengers to fill a 747.

I asked around some more, and it turns out the engineers have also designed the radii of the curved track to accommodate longer trains. In order to run light rail on our streetcar line someday, we’d have to boost electrical power, change the signal wiring, and lengthen the platforms where the trains would stop. But those are small potatoes in the big picture.

You’ve heard it before, many times: “The streetcar doesn’t go anywhere,” or “I’m not crazy about the streetcar, what I really want is light rail.”

Cincinnati Light Rail Tracks on Elm Street
After new light rail tracks were installed in front of Music Hall, refurbished cobblestones were restored along Elm Street. Photograph by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy.

It doesn’t have to be this way forever. Using the Cincinnati Streetcar tracks now under construction, we could have light rail in the I-75 Corridor sooner rather than later. Cincinnatians who believe that rail is “just about downtown” need to look at this from 30,000 feet.

Here’s why. Our streetcars will travel north along Elm until they pass Findlay Market where they will turn east to head up the hill to UC. Longer, faster light rail trains can follow the same path on Elm, but turn west north of Findlay, head over to Central Parkway and then to I-75 where a rail corridor extending throughout Hamilton County is being preserved as part of the highway work now underway. That was a requirement of the I-75 Corridor Study, which found that a newly widened I-75 would attract many more cars and trucks by induced demand and that only the construction of light rail in the corridor would keep future freeway congestion in check.

The I-75 light rail might not always run alongside the highway; it probably can’t in some places. And anyway, the rail line probably wants to leave the highway here and there in order to penetrate neighborhoods and business districts where people live and work.

So our new mayor and city council can choose to cancel the Cincinnati Streetcar at great financial and reputational costs to our city. Or they can move forward and complete the project, allow Cincinnatians to become accustomed to using rail transit, and — when we’re ready to resume the community conversation on regional light rail — have the keystone building block in place. This is an important frame for the decision our city is about to make.

It’s a big decision, a defining moment for Greater Cincinnati. If we turn away from the expanded transportation choices in front of us now, we probably won’t have this chance again for a long time.

John Schneider is a local businessman who has long been an advocate for rail transit. In 2002 he helped lead the MetroMoves campaign and was instrumental in both Issue 9 and Issue 48 victories. He has personally led hundreds of Cincinnatians on tour of Portland’s streetcar and light rail system, and the development it has caused. Schneider is also the chairman of the Alliance for Regional Transit and sits on Cincinnati’s Planning Commission. If you would like to submit a guest editorial to UrbanCincy you can do so by contacting our editorial team at editors@urbancincy.com.

  • Matt Jacob

    I browsed the features on the CAF website of their other projects.

    Is ours going to have LED indicators (or any indicators on the outside)? I read that Houston had trouble with crashes when they first built theirs. There’s always a learning curve to something new, but they’ll probably have to pass some city laws that give the streetcar authority precedence in the right of way to cover themselves for any pedestrian or car accidents. Last thing we want is to get this running and wrecked by an idiot driver.

    (On a side note Houston has had a looong fight to get their light rail up and running, including funding taken away for political reasons [by a guy ironically names Tom DeLay], and made it happen. They now have the 2nd highest ridership per track mile, so don’t give up on our streetcar!)

    Not really sure what an “on board passenger counting system” actually is. I mean that could just be a turnstile, right…. but something that automatically counts passengers and then checks the number of paid passengers on board could be a great feature to use for enforcement of fares. Many are concerned about free-riders and might be a good thing to look into for later expansions.

    An ACR system which enables storage of the braking energy could be a good thing to add to any new cars that are going to climb the Uptown hill. I don’t know enough about them or the design to know whether that’s possible, but it might save on operating costs. I’ve gotta think that climbing that hill is going to take quite a bit of juice.

    Seeing the list of projects CAF has done internationally is also very reassuring.

    • Jake Mecklenborg

      Houston’s first light rail line has the highest ridership of any new light rail lines. It is entirely street-running and replaced what was probably the city’s busiest bus line. The lesson is that a city gets a higher ROI from a slow light rail line than a high speed one that parallels the interstate.

    • Ian Mitchell

      A city gets better ROI from a service which is on-time and serves enough people to justify its existence. Sometimes that’s high speed, limited stop, sometimes it’s not.

  • Eric Douglas

    Great info, the argument that we shouldn’t build the streetcar because we don’t have light rail or that we don’t need it because we have buses is coming from people that have used neither.

    Looks like the City was taking up old streetcar/cablecar tracks at Ludlow and Clifton this weekend

  • matimal

    Of course, a clear majority of Cincinnatians can see your point, John. But your arguments only remind cranely and the coasters that they will have to work hard to prevent Cincinnati’s success. They have no use for a more successful Cincinnati. They need it to be weak and easily manipulated because of unstable finances. cranely was elected by those who think that Cincinnati has the option of staying exactly as it is and funded by those who want to hurt Cincinnati because it would hurt their interests as absentee slumlords and small-time real estate developers in suburbia who don’t want any competition for credit or buyers from Cincinnati. For both groups, the presence of new voters in Cincinnati is unwelcome. New voters might vote differently than current ones and cranely and slitherman know that few new voters will ever vote for them. They are old-school machine politicians who can handle real competition. The unifying principle of their coalition is to work to keep Cincinnati from developing. Your arguments only remind them that they will have to work that much harder against anything that might increase property values and tax income in Cincinnati. Remember, Detroit failed because it was in the interest of enough people that it fail.

  • Mitchell Brown

    Two groups of my friends have already visited Cinci for a weekend (we live in Chicago). After hearing their glowing praises (and looking around on Google Earth) My girlfriend and I are planning a weekend getaway to the Queen City. I’m the architecture fan, so she’s pretty much relying on me not to wasting the weekend – which I don’t think I am. Your city has a lot going for it in terms of architectural beauty. Build on that. Too bad we don’t have high-speed (real high-speed rail) rail linking our two cities. Keep up the good work Cinci.

    • Ian Mitchell

      The amtrak service to cincy is so awful you’d think it was in arizona, rather than smack dab in the midwest.