Cincinnati’s Streetcar Victory a Decade in the Making

The final, final, final vote for the first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar took place today. Perhaps by now you all know the outcome. A six-person veto-proof super-majority voted to continue construction. Cincinnati, as Mayor John Cranley (D) said today, will have a streetcar.

What is important in this moment is to realize that everyone involved lived up to their campaign promises. Wendell Young (D), Chris Seelbach (D) and Yvette Simpson (D) stood strong in their support of the project – even in the face of uncertain outcomes.

At the same time, Christopher Smitherman (I), Amy Murray (R) and Charlie Winburn (R) held true to their promises to oppose the streetcar no matter what. They were the three lone votes against restarting construction.

Construction work will soon resume on Cincinnati’s $133M streetcar project. Photographs by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy.

Then there are the three council members who campaigned on taking a serious look at the numbers and making a prompt decision about whether to cancel the project or proceed. P.G. Sittenfeld (D), David Mann (D) and Kevin Flynn (C) all did that once they saw the numbers in detail. Cancelling a project this far along would have been fiscally irresponsible, and they voted true to their campaign promises to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s dollars.

UrbanCincy has been covering this project since we started the website back in 2007. Our original coverage focused on redevelopment efforts in Downtown and then Over-the-Rhine, but the streetcar quickly became a big part of that redevelopment narrative. It is no secret that we are strong supporters of the project and believe it will improve mobility in the center city and set the city on a path toward building the regional rail system everyone seems to now desire.

There are many people responsible for getting Cincinnati to this stage, but the biggest credit must absolutely be given to John Schneider. If it were not for his unrelenting leadership on this issue over the past decade, we would not be anywhere close to where we are now.

The emergence of Mayor Mark Mallory (D) then gave the city a prominent leader to push the project forward, and Mallory leaned on the expertise and leadership of former City Manager Milton Dohoney and Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (D) to get it all done.

It is important to keep in mind that the person who first pushed for the Uptown extension to be included in phase one was in fact Roxanne Qualls. The Uptown Connector was never part of the original phase one plan, but was added in later as “Phase 1b” at the urging of Qualls, who then worked with Mallory and then Governor Ted Strickland (D) to secure state funding to make that happen.

Hard fought victories in 2009 and 2011 helped keep the project alive, but also delayed it and ran up the project’s costs. Those delays also allowed enough time for Governor John Kasich (R) to assume office and pull the $52 million in state funding Ohio had originally pledged.

So while Qualls’ leadership and vision to have the first phase include the Uptown Connector is not being realized at this exact moment, our attention must now turn to extending the streetcar line to neighborhoods in Uptown as quickly as possible.

Cincinnati Regional Rail Plan
The first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar system is a small part of a much larger regional rail plan envisioned by leaders. Map provided by OKI Regional Council of Governments.

A new wave of leaders and organizers has emerged in Cincinnati as a result of this most recent battle over the streetcar project. This includes the heroic efforts of Eric Avner and the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation for drumming up private support to contribute $9 million toward the project’s ongoing operations.

Their hard work and courage should certainly be commended, but let’s also not forget the people who have been pounding the pavement on behalf of the streetcar since the beginning. Most Cincinnatians in 2007 did not know what a streetcar was, much less a modern one and the benefits it would bring. The hard work put in by those people early on was necessary.

This movement was not built overnight and these supporters are not fair-weather fans of the city. The movement has grown in size and grown more sophisticated over the past decade and is now stronger than ever.

You too can join this urbanist movement in Cincinnati.

We gather at the Moerlein Lager House around the first Thursday of every month to host URBANexchange – an urbanist networking and social event. We also partner with the Niehoff Urban Studio at the University of Cincinnati to study complex issues facing our city and engage the public in that dialog. Please join us at our next URBANexchange and pay us a visit in Corryville for our next event with the Niehoff Urban Studio.

Now is a time to celebrate and reflect. But it is not the time to get complacent. There are more issues to address and this energy that saved the streetcar needs to be redirected there. Congratulations, Cincinnati! Let’s get to work.

  • AkronRonin

    Awesome win for the people who care about the future of places like Cincinnati and who want to see them grow and improve. This is very, very good to see happening.

  • Now let’s start planning additional connections in NKY – I want to be able to walk a few blocks in Bellevue to get on the streetcar. Also, do you have a link for a larger version of the regional rail plan image?

    • Eric Douglas

      This is a more likely plan

    • John Schneider

      For me, this map suggests we should build a tunnel from the Elm/Race couplet to the Jefferson/Vine couplet.

      It would probably result in half the travel-time as the Vine Street Connector. It would be faster than driving, which is what makes transit really successful. It would transform our city

    • Eric Douglas

      The rush hour congestion away from the hospitals is insane. Connect downtown to uptown, but Metro needs to run some X routes from the uptown area to the suburbs.

    • Matt Jacob

      I agree there are better ways than the current proposal to connect Uptown and downtown/OTR that need to be explored. There’s hardly anything to redevelop in the hillside part of Vine (or Clifton for that matter) that justifies the cost of the tracks. A tunnel would probably be even more cost prohibitive, but we need to look at all the options.

      Personally I lean towards aerial trams as the solution here, especially since we have multiple underutilized hillside parks to connect with. Why not have the Uptown streercar line end at Christ/Jackson Hill park and then connect to the Casino area? Or at Bellevue Hill park and near at Findlay Market? Cost wise you might be able to make two connections for the price of tracking or tunneling the hill.
      We’ve got to think outside the box and explore multiple ways of connection Uptown to the rest.

    • Neil Clingerman

      The only place where an aerial tram might really make sense is to Mt. Adams, for being practically on top of downtown the transit connections there are really terrible.

    • Matt Jacob

      Someone told me they had trouble getting air rights over the highway from the federal government in the past for this idea. I don’t know the truth to that. I’d love to see the winner of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation Big Idea Challenge ( using the money to explore it more though.

    • Mary S-b

      Matt, I respectfully disagree that there’s “hardly anything to redevelop in the hillside part of Vine”. Mt. Auburn is in need of a lot of help/investment. And, does Robert A’s Curve Cafe ring a bell? Before I moved to Cinci, I attended a conference at the Westin in 1992 and took a cab up Vine St to the Zoo. I’ll always remember how shocked I was at the abandoned buildings at that exact point along Vine St. We need to keep the hillside in mind and support the existing development that is happening in CUF and Avondale by supporting rapid development of the Phase 1b and then the Phase 2 lines, all the way to the Zoo.

    • Matt Jacob

      Trust me I’m aware as I live on E. Clifton. There are many great buildings (and alleys being cleaned by Spring in our Steps) that need investment there. I didn’t mean to cast it in the light of not being worth saving. It is.

      But I don’t think the scale of development that can happen in that area of the route justifies the large cost of building tracks through that long distance. 1B also only has 2 stops in that stretch and most of the development will be around the stops.

      The part of 1B that justifies the cost of the investment is the heart of the route between the hospitals UC. I’d rather use that expense to cover more of Uptown than climb the hill.

    • John Yung

      Bellevue does not subsidize TANK. The funding cut came from Campbell County a few years ago and Bellevue residents and city staff actively protested the reduction in service. They ended up cutting a few hours of service off of the #12 and the shuttle but it still goes to Bellevue. Stops are at Joe’s Crab Shack and Med Arts building in Bellevue. It would be great if the shuttle went into the historic district.

    • Covington and Newport have repeatedly voiced their support for extensions. Let’s see if there’s any effort on their end to do so. A northern Kentucky link would be great for the region.

    • Eric Douglas

      That’s a huge cultural question for them. You’re asking an area that had the homebuilders association try to dissolve the NKAPC and another group that sued to defund LIBRARIES.

    • I have a feeling that the business leaders in Nky have already been uneasy for the past half-decade as The Banks was built, Fountain Square area transformed and Over-the-Rhine turned around. They have seen that brief era of investment in Nky quickly shift back across the river.

      Right now tourists often stay in Nky because they have more affordably priced hotels. There are two to three new moderately priced hotels being built downtown that already put you within close walking distance to the many more attractions on the Ohio side of the river. The streetcar will put you within walking distance of even more. Once the streetcar opens, what will be the force to 1) get people to stay on the Nky side of the river and 2) go over there at all? If Uptown gets its streetcar leg built first, it will just continue to make matters worse for Nky.

      As a result, I think the business community in Nky will step up and really force this issue. They absolutely need the streetcar to be extended south across the river if they want to continue to stay relevant when it comes to tourism and entertainment dollars.

    • Eric Douglas

      Covington brought in a consultant a year or two ago to help them assess the impact of The Banks and how to counter it. The now mostly vacant Corporex RiverCenter has proven to be a mistake and the huge IRS processing center is a barrier to new development, so they’re left trying to develop the levee between the highway and RiverCenter. NKY communities should simply focus on being great residential areas with their proximity to downtown and lower cost of living. They’re not going to be able to compete on office space and entertainment.

    • Unfortunately I do not have a larger version of that map I included in the post at this time.

  • Eric Douglas

    What was amazing to me was that it seemed for a moment that Winburn was pro-streetcar during the morning committee meeting, using a pro-streetcar Enquire op-ed for his speech and volunteering to help raise money with PG. Someone needs to tell him and Murray that it’s ok for Republicans to vote for transit.

    • AkronRonin

      Some Republicans in Utah get it, and they are rolling out streetcars and light rail there like crazy. Maybe Winburn and Murray need to meet up with them and see how it’s done.

    • Eric Douglas

      Texas also. Midwestern Republicans must be special. The Big 3 thank you.

    • Eric Talbot

      It’s gratifying to see all the good minds at work here discussing and evaluating the pros and cons of the various ways Cincinnati’s new streetcar can be put to work to make the city a far more livable place to work, live and visit.
      Congratulations to all of you, and stay focused!
      My bet is with all of you progressively-minded people. You will find a way (or ways) to forge constructive and worthwhile reality out of vision.

  • Great post, and I’m glad it was pointed out that Sittenfeld, Mann, and Flynn were never clearly anti-streetcar. They campaigned on skepticism, and continue to voice skepticism, but never promised to “kill” the project as Mayor Cranley did.

    Also agreed that it’s not time to get complacent. First and foremost, Phase 1 is not 100% out of the woods. COAST will certainly have something up their sleeves and don’t be surprised to see the project threatened once again in the near future.

    Further, there are many critical issues coming up in 2014, including Union Terminal’s operations and renovation budgets, affordable housing, and Project Groundwork. Other planning issues like form-based codes in Northside and other neighborhoods are also sure to arise.

    The consensus seems to be building that the Uptown Connector will have to wait until Phase 1 is completed and operating. I do not hold this belief. While it may take some time to gather support for it, the momentum on the project now gives us a big boost on raising private dollars for Phase 2. A push for TIF funding and/or an SID for Phase 2 is certainly feasible. The planning for Phase 1 took, what, 4 years? We need to start planning Phase 2 now.

    • Matt Jacob

      I agree with the first paragraph. This summary said it well.

      Due to what you said in paragraph 2 I think what you suggest in paragraph 4 is premature.

      Setting a good precedent with phase 1 is too crucial to jeopardize splitting our resources and energy in the immediate future. We still have a lot to do on phase 1 just to establish a sustainable funding model that incorporates a value capture mechanism and fend off other attacks until it’s completed.

      After it’s operating, we’ll need to work out the bugs, adjust the fares accordingly with ridership, and most importantly teach people how to use it. Most people have never ridden one. They don’t know how to drive on the same street as one (google Wham Bam Tram) or when it makes sense to drive vs take the streetcar. There will be a 3-5 year learning curve in my opinion where it will be crucial that it continues to gain traction and acceptance. You need multiple occurances of “exploring” what the streetcar can really do before people are comfortable after a Reds game taking it to the rest of the city attractions or going to Findlay Market for their lunch break. A setback could really hurt its adoption if for example those first impressions are that it’s unsafe or something else.

      Frankly, pushing to Uptown would be very naive in my opinion before phase 1 is proven. Plus Cranley is mayor of 4 years so good luck finding funding to study or build it.

    • I think Phase 1A will be very successful on its own. Of course, Phase 1B will be great and allow people to have a one-seat ride from UC to The Banks, or the Riverfront Transit Center to the Uptown hospitals. But the 2.7-to-1 ROI was calculated based on Phase 1A alone. I believe the ridership estimates may have been as well.

      The other nice thing about adding future phases is that it greatly reduces the cost-per-mile. Since we’ll already have a maintenance and operations facility that can hold up to 12 vehicles, we won’t need to expand it for a long time. And presumably if we expand into Northern Kentucky, those counties will pay some share of the operating cost.

    • Let’s agree to disagree on the Uptown link.

      We can certainly begin getting the corporate world back “on board” for the streetcar, as they were before Kasich pulled the funding for it in 2011. Promising the Uptown link will be critical for getting many power players (I’m mainly thinking UC and the hospitals) back on board.

      Given next year’s swamped slate, though, including governor and congressional elections, I think it will be 2015 before we can pursue a real financing plan for Phase 2 (once we have an idea what Ohio and the Feds will contribute). I think a TIF-backed financing plan (with private, state, and federal matches) with an SID to cover operating costs is more than possible. With Mann and Flynn on board, approval for Phase 2 construction is certainly feasible during this political cycle.

      While I also believe Phase 1 will be a success regardless, completing to Uptown to connect not just the city’s two largest employment centers, but also the city’s fastest-growing communities, could be a “game changer” (to borrow a phrase PG Sittenfeld has used). To me, just saying “we’ll look at it again in 2017” isn’t good enough.

    • Matt Jacob

      I agree with you that building their support (as we already go asking for money) is definitely something that can be done sooner rather than later.

      Anything else in my mind is a little far-fetched until almost a year from now once we know the result of the governor’s election. If the governor flips, we could try to resubmit for ODOT money and maybe even add 1B to the end of the current construction schedule. It did already receive the highest score (therefore top of the list) and there would still be enough construction time left to plan 1B and build it at the end I’d think.

      Outside of that happening I think it’s a ways off and will probably be tough to built traction as 1A slowly ramps up in its first years. Once the success is apparent to most and there is an election, the chances of 1B get much better. Gotta keep people talking though.

    • I’ll generally agree with that. I would love to see the conversation about Phase 2/1B start again now, but waiting until after the next election is more realistic.

      My optimistic view is re-issuing an extension study in early 2015, with groundwork laid for a plan that year, and construction in 2016-17.

      Keep in mind, I know it’s a different political environment, but Kansas City is already planning their expansions after having just broken ground on the first phase.

    • The next election for mayor and council is 2017, so your ideal time frame doesn’t work with the scenario you laid out here.

      Phase 1B is already 30% designed, so I suspect it will not be too difficult to move that forward if financing can be found. Any other extensions would just be preliminary lines on a map at this stage, which I think is what most of KC’s “planning” is for future phases thus far.

    • I don’t know why the public has reached this consensus that Uptown and Downtown need to be linked via streetcar. If you talk to the godfather of rail transit in Cincinnati, John Schneider, he’ll be the first to tell you that the idea is to connect job centers with areas that have a potential to accommodate large amounts of residential.

      In the case of Phase 1A that is Downtown (job center) and Over-the-Rhine (high capacity residential area). In the case of Uptown (Phase 2) you’ll want to connect UC/Medical District (job center) and CUF/Corryville (high capacity residential area). Phase 1B, while important, is less significant than the future phase two that will move people about in Uptown.

    • Matt Jacob

      I concur that a streetcar circulator around Uptown makes more sense than as the actual connector from Uptown to the urban basin.

      Aerial trams should at least be explored as a more cost effective way of making that connection IMO. Depending on where we’re ultimately headed, a tunnel under Uptown to light rail lines to the north could even make sense with some sort of elevator system (a la deep subway stop) to connect to the Uptown streetcar circulator’s stop.

    • I only think an aerial tram really makes sense going from Pendleton/OTR to Mt. Adams over I-71. This has been proposed several times, but I think it could really have some legs this time now that the casino has been built at Broadway Commons and it isn’t such a no-man’s land any more.

    • Matt Jacob

      I think you’re right that it would be another good fit to Mt. Adams, but I had heard a rumor that in the past there was some problem with the federal DOT giving the air rights across the highway, which killed it. Know if there’s any truth to that?

      The cost of tracking up the hill is hard to justify in my head. Cabling from the basin(stay casino) to Jackson Hill park (Christ hospital stop) and then to Inwood Park (and Uptown streetcar connection) could be cheaper and create better connections. Like I said, just worth exploring.

      Randy/John, what has your experience in Portland been with their aerial tram? How is that tied into their streetcar and light rail system?

    • The aerial tram’s lower station is right next to a streetcar stop and a bike valet station. So I would say it’s about as intermodal as you can get.

    • What I had heard is that when the Mt. Adams Aerial Tram got the closest to reality it was shot down by ODOT for fears that it would be a distraction to drivers passing beneath on I-71. Given that the Portland Aerial Tram passes directly over I-5, I would suspect that gives precedent for allowing something of this nature. Precedent that didn’t exist when Cincinnati’s proposal came about.

      And Travis is right. The Portland Aerial Tram is adjacent to two streetcar stops in the South Waterfront (OHSU Commons and SW Moody & Gibbs), and has a massive bicycle parking hub built at its base that includes valet parking and repair.

      What makes the Portland Aerial Tram work well is what I think would also work well for Cincinnati’s. First, both connect a large population base (PDX: South Waterfront, CIN: Downtown/OTR) with a destination (PDX: OHSU Hospital, CIN: Mt. Adams). Once at the top, both offer views of surrounding hills, river and city below, and both do so with established scenic overlooks.

      The one thing that is a bit different is that I think you see a bit more traditional commuters using it…coming from the residential areas at the base of the hill to their job at the top. In Cincinnati, however, you would see some of this from people in Mt. Adams and nearby East Walnut Hills coming down the hill into Downtown/OTR for their work. I would suspect you would also see more constant visitor/tourist usage of Cincinnati’s due to all the entertainment options near both sides of the tram.

    • John Schneider

      Findlay Market @ streetcar stop – UC

    • One last thing is that if you were to build the Mt. Adams Aerial Tram from about 9th Street/Eggleston Avenue to Monastery Street/St. Paul Place it would be about 1,000 feet shorter than the total distance spanned by the Portland Aerial Tram.

    • I think you just contradicted yourself. Yes, we want to connect UC and CUF. We also want to connect UC to OTR, and connected CUF to downtown. Two largest employment centers. Two (or three, if you count OTR and downtown separately) fastest-growing residential areas.

      My “next election” comment referred to the gubernatorial/Congressional election next year. I am still optimistic a Phase 1b/2 can move forward with the current council, but I do think they’ll want to re-study any of the work already done.

    • My point is that I think it’s more important to connect large housing areas in Uptown with large job concentrations Uptown, and large housing areas Downtown/OTR with large job concentrations Downtown/OTR.

      Connecting Downtown/OTR with Uptown makes sense, but what makes most sense is connecting each area with its immediate surroundings. You could almost build two stand alone circulator lines – one for Uptown and one for Downtown/OTR, and both would do well on their own.

    • I somewhat see this argument, and honestly would rather see an Uptown circulator than an up-and-down route to the zoo. That said, Uptown isn’t nearly as desperate for a circulator as downtown/OTR. Car traffic mainly funnels around the university, creating the UC superblock as well as (relatively) easy pedestrian travel on the fringes off-campus. You can walk just about anywhere in Uptown (excluding the far-flung stretches of Clifton) in 20-30 minutes. You can bike in less. That can’t be said for the Phase 1 route, where a comparable walk from Findlay to the Banks takes at least an hour. (I understand not everyone can walk, or wants to, of course, but there is a much greater walking culture as you know among UC students and area residents than the boomers moving into downtown/OTR.)

      I’ll agree to disagree regarding the importance of linking downtown and OTR. I’m just going off personal anecdotes and experiences, here, but I know many who live in Uptown but work downtown, and vice versa. Travel between Uptown and downtown is frequent for area residents of each, and that hill has always been a major barrier.

      Finally, in the context of the larger transit system, connecting the streetcar to the uptown bus hub and reducing service for some of the duplicated bus routes could be huge from an efficiency standpoint.

  • One of the things I’ve taken away from the streetcar battle is strong silent leadership only gets you so far. City Hall let the opposition set the narrative for the streetcar the whole way. This somehow needs to change.

  • Thomas R Shrout Jr

    Congratulations to all involved. This is a huge win for all mid-sized Midwestern cities.