EDITORIAL: Eight-Point Plan for Fixing Cincinnati’s Broken Parking System

Cincinnati Parking Meter

Broken and malfunctioning meters plague Cincinnati’s parking system. Photograph by Randy Simes for UrbanCincy.

We are continuing to look at opportunities inside City Hall that could help alleviate Cincinnati’s budget and pension liabilities, while also maintaining and improving service delivery.

In addition to the waste collection reforms that include a shift to a Pay As You Throw system, we will be making other specific policy recommendations that we feel will improve the quality of service delivery while also improving the City’s finances – ultimately working toward a long-term, structurally balanced budget.

Back in June 2010, UrbanCincy examined the finances of the city’s parking system. In this analysis, and comparison with cities from around the country, we discovered a broken system that was not performing the functions it needed to perform, and was not financially solvent.

As a result, we recommended a seven-year lease of all 5,700 of the city’s on-street parking meters. We estimated that such a deal could yield just over $3 million in annual payments, while also ridding the city of the associated financial liabilities. We did not estimate what an upfront payment could be due to the infinite number of variables that could affect that.

While much has changed politically since that time, the facts remain the same. Cincinnati’s parking system is broken, and is in need of immediate upgrades and reforms.

One of the first actions by the newly elected Mayor John Cranley (D), however, was to halt the signed Parking Lease & Modernization agreement, executed by former City Manager Milton Dohoney, which was structured to solve these exact problems. Under that deal the City would have leased four parking garages, one parking lot and all of the City’s on-street parking meters to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority.

The Port then agreed to work with Xerox to manage the system and implement comprehensive upgrades to the deteriorating and outdated system. This would have included electronic parking meters that accept credit cards, real-time parking availability data systems and the rehabilitation of existing lots and garages.

The deal would have also provided the City of Cincinnati with an upfront payment of $85 million, generated approximately $3 million in annual installment payments over the life of the agreement, and guaranteed approximately $98 million in capital investments into the system. For better or worse, that agreement has been jeopardized and we are essentially back at square one.

So where and what exactly is square one?

The City has been experiencing declining revenues from its parking assets for several years now. Revenue collections peaked years ago, but have been declining recently due to inadequate enforcement and the parking system’s poor state of repair. These assets require constant and expensive maintenance and upgrades, so virtually all of the money generated by the Parking System is spent maintaining the Parking System.

This is important. The Parking System does not generate any excess revenue for the city to use on other basic services.

In most years the Parking System is revenue neutral, meaning that the revenues it generates cover its expenses. This is acceptable, unless you are deferring maintenance costs in order to make the numbers match. This has been the case in Cincinnati for years, and has left the Parking System in terrible condition.

The situation has gotten worse in recent years as council has worked to balance the budget without laying off employees. In both 2010 and 2011, the city spent considerably more on the Parking System than it collected in an effort to keep it up to snuff. We are talking $3.6 million more in 2010 and $1.1 million more in 2011. This stopped in 2012 when the city cut its annual investments in the Parking System by several million dollars.

Cincinnati's Broken Parking System

For reference, investments in the Parking System today are approximately 38% lower than they were when the City invested $13.3 million into the Parking System in 2010. Over that same period, the parking fund balance has dropped from $12.5 million to $7.8 million.

Simply put: revenues are down, maintenance is being deferred and the parking fund is being depleted. This is not sustainable.

The recent proposal from the Cranley Administration, which was immediately and thoroughly rejected by just about everyone except five council members, does not address what the problems are, and therefore does not propose appropriate solutions for those problems.

The situation and trajectory is dire and UrbanCincy recommends that the City of Cincinnati move forward with upgrades to its Parking System immediately. Absent the previously agreed upon Parking Lease & Modernization deal or some other public-private partnership; here is how we suggest doing so:

  1. Issue bonds to upgrade all parking meters in the city to use the latest electronic payment collection and occupancy tracking technology. This would include pay-by-phone capabilities.
  2. Utilize the new technology to implement variable pricing structures that reflect real-time market demand. If there is a Bengals game downtown and meters near the stadium are packed, then the rates on those meters would increase, while meters further away would maintain lower rates. In neighborhood business districts the same would be true. When demand is high so should be prices. When demand is low, prices should drop accordingly to make it a more attractive option for those visiting our neighborhood business districts.
  3. Release a new application, website and text alert system that notifies drivers of parking space availability and informs them of the associated rates.
  4. Sell the city-owned parking lot at Third Street and Central Avenue so that it can be repurposed into a tax-producing property.
  5. Create a special lease agreement for city-owned parking garages and lots, so that the separate authority could manage advertising at these locations. The Ohio Revised Code currently does not grant cities authority to sell advertising in such a manner, but not allowing for advertisements is unnecessarily cutting off much-needed revenue. Let’s get creative so that we can maximize revenues without burdening our residents, businesses or visitors.
  6. Tear down the Garfield Garage, which is in greatest need of repair, and market the site to developers interested in building on it. Such a development agreement could include the provision of the same or greater number of parking spaces to be replaced – similar to the deal signed for the new residential tower to be built at Fourth and Race Streets in the place of the Pogue’s Garage. This will free the city from a major capital expense that would further deplete the parking fund in the near future.
  7. Tear down the Seventh & Sycamore Garage, which is the only thing blocking the construction of a $14.2 million, 115-room hotel and 725-space garage from being built in its place. The existing 450-space garage is also in poor condition and its removal would be another major liability coming off the City’s books.
  8. Conduct a citywide study to determine appropriate adjustments to the hours of operation for on-street parking meters on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level.

Following through on these eight recommendations will allow the city to maintain ownership and control of its Parking System while also allowing it to make the necessary upgrades and improve the balance sheets for this portion of the budget. These changes will make the Parking System a revenue generating asset not just in rhetoric, but in reality.

The increased revenues will allow for the City to replenish the parking fund, make its upgrades and take additional revenue and use it to support other essential but non-revenue generating public services.

Retooling Cincinnati’s Industrial Neighborhoods for the 21st Century

In the last few years, evidence has shown the possibility for a revival of manufacturing within the United States. Recent trends have seen the “reshoring” of factories – with polls showing more and more companies considering the move – and the expansion and opening of new factories as well.

Much of this reindustrialization has occurred in the South and, for the most part, outside major urban areas. For far too long cities, especially northern cities in the Rust Belt, have written off an economy based on manufacturing as something from a bygone era, never to come back.

Spring Grove Village
Once viable industrial neighborhoods like Spring Grove Village have made way for the proliferation of car dealerships and fast food restaurants. Could their future be something greater? Photograph by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

Cities from Cleveland to Flint have tried to reinvent themselves as a something like a Rust Belt version of Portland, Oregon, thus turning their back on any sort of industrial and economic policy in the hopes that gentrification and arts will revive their city.

While these sorts of developments have a place in economic policy for American cities, it is an unwise move for industrial cities such as Cincinnati to turn their backs on the opportunity to attract industry into the city once again.

Cincinnati is well-positioned to capitalize on a manufacturing renaissance in the nation. With incredible industrial infrastructure, an already heavy industrial sector in the region, and an incredible amount of vacant space, the city can create an economy where the bustling coffee shops and boutiques of Over-the-Rhine are only a short walk from the buzz of manufacturing (advanced and traditional alike) in Queensgate and the West End.

The days of entire cities being built upon industrial production have passed, that is without a doubt. But when urbanists discuss cities with mixed-use, diverse economies, manufacturing must be included.

These higher-than-average paying jobs could attract residents and revitalize neighborhoods. Through aggressive economic and industrial planning in the city, zoning that doesn’t ignore manufacturing, labor cooperation, and innovative education initiatives, Cincinnati could become a nationwide example of a city building a solid, diversified economic foundation on which to reclaim its storied past and prepare for a healthy future.

Editor’s Note: Jacob D. Fessler is a new member of the UrbanCincy team. He grew up in Northern Kentucky’s Erlanger community and went on to study International Relations and Latin American Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, and is currently studying International Affairs at the University of Cincinnati.

Jake will focus on urban economics and specifically examine policies that impact our region’s industrial – and thus economic – competitiveness. How and what can Cincinnati do to inject new life and jobs into the Mill Creek Valley? How should our community leaders be looking to improve earnings and the financial health and stability of our residents? These are the kinds of questions he will be exploring. Please join us in welcoming Jake to our team!

EDITORIAL: Cincinnati Leaders Should Implement a PAYT Waste Management System

As the new mayor and city council continue to get settled in to their new offices, we would like to suggest a policy reform that should be enacted immediately to help improve the city’s environment, balance its budget and give residents and businesses greater flexibility in terms of their trash collection.

Since the city debuted its new system of trash collection, it has been riddled with complaints from upset citizens and business owners unhappy about not being able to throw away the amount of trash that they generate. This is a problem since reports of illegal dumping have picked up in various neighborhoods.

At the same time, the new system represents an improvement over the old in terms of its efficiency. The city is now able to reduce staff levels on each garage truck, avoid safety risks associated with employees lifting and maneuvering heavy trash cans, and boost recycling rates. All of these reforms save the city money and help the city protect its workers from injury on the job.

In order to resolve the ongoing issues, while also preserving the advances that have been made, UrbanCincy urges the new mayor and city council to immediately implement a Pay As You Throw (PAYT) system.

Such a system is supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) for its environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and its equity. What the USEPA has noticed is that communities using such a system have realized increased recycling rates, balanced and consistent revenue streams for municipalities looking to offset the costs of their waste collection, and improved equity in terms of how payments are made by the diverse range of users in the system.

As of 2006, USEPA data showed that 243 communities throughout Ohio were utilizing a PAYT system. Cincinnati should be the next.

When implementing a PAYT system, communities are able to choose from charging users a specific fee per bag or can of waste they generate. In communities where the capabilities are available, like Cincinnati, officials can be more precise and charge residents based on the weight of trash they generate.

Due to the potential complexities and higher administrative costs of managing such a variable-rate system, we recommend that city officials set a base rate for each 64-gallon can, with fixed prices for each additional can after that.

This is both a fair and effective means of managing waste collection. It allows users to generate as much or as little trash as they desire without any fear of exceeding the size constraints of their trash can. Those who recycle more, and discard less, are rewarded with lower fees.

If the new mayor and city council would like to pursue a version of this approach that could benefit low-income communities, then we would recommend developing a partnership with a local company or organization, or pursue grant money, that could cover the costs of any user within the city’s established empowerment zones. This would allow the city to continue to improve its financial standing and service delivery, while also working to aid residents and businesses within the neighborhoods that need it most.

In the last full year of budget data, the City of Cincinnati spent $11,320,530 on its Waste Collections Program. This was a $758,740 reduction from the previous year’s expenditures due largely to the elimination of 12 full-time equivalent staff positions. Meanwhile, there is no direct revenue source to pay for this program.

Of course, COAST and its allies successfully pushed through a broadly written Charter amendment in 2011 (Issue 47), which was opposed by the Cincinnati Regional Chamber of Commerce, that prohibits the City from assessing, levying, or collecting taxes or general assessment on real properties, or against the owners or occupants thereof, for the collection of trash, garbage, waste, rubbish or refuse.

What this means is that the City is permanently stuck with an $11-12 million hole in its budget every year. Most communities around the nation and throughout the region already charge their residents and businesses directly for waste collection. Cincinnati has been unique in being able to not directly charge for this service, but times have changed, and so must its policies. Waste collection should collect as much in revenue as is reasonable to help offset the costs to administer the program.

If the new mayor and city council want to get real about passing a structurally balanced budget while not severely degrading the services it provides its residents and businesses, then there should be no question about whether or not to implement a PAYT system as quickly as possible. We cannot afford to let allow an $11.3 million hole sit in our budget.

Implementing a Pay As You Throw system will help structurally balance the city’s budget. It will help improve our environment and the health of our communities. And it will improve the lives for Cincinnati residents and businesses who demand high quality public services with the flexibility they desire in their day-to-day lives. And most importantly, it has the ability to do all of this in an equitable manner for all Cincinnatians.

Celebrating a Great 2013 While Looking Ahead to Our Eighth Year

Another year has come and gone, and I wanted to take this opportunity to recap some of the highlights from 2013 while also looking to the future.

Our readership remained constant in 2013, with accelerated growth in Q4. We expect readership levels to hold at those increased Q4 rates throughout 2014, while recording some additional modest growth. Perhaps not surprisingly, our biggest month was December when the streetcar battle culminated.

More people listened to The UrbanCincy Podcast – now entering its second year – than ever before. The most popular episode last year was our yearly recap at the start of 2013 followed by our interviews with David Ginsburg from DCI and Kevin Wright from the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. Overall we had more than 109,000 downloads of The UrbanCincy Podcast in 2013 and averaged nearly 7,000 downloads per episode.

UrbanCincy Readership Trends

Staff Changes
Our staff also grew and changed a bit last year. As many of you know, I am temporarily on assignment in Seoul and John Yung has become our local area manager. Travis Estell continues to serve as our technologist and podcast manager, while Jake Mecklenborg continues to perform in-depth reporting on transportation issues and produce much of our photography.

We added two new staff writers in 2013 as well – Caitlin Behle and Paige Mallot. They will be covering a variety of topics, but will help expand UrbanCincy’s coverage of arts and entertainment. A third new staff writer – Jacob Fessler – has contributed some already, but will begin his work covering the region’s urban economics and industry in 2014. We also began working with the talented Nate Wessel and Andrew Stahlke to produce custom maps and videos that complement our stories.

We have an incredible team and none of this would be possible without their dedication and hard work. If you see them out and about, you should treat them to a cup coffee or a glass of beer.

Partnerships
In February we entered into an agreement with the Niehoff Urban Studio to produce events that highlight the interdisciplinary work and research performed by students at the University of Cincinnati. That led to our Metropolis & Mobility event in April and our Urbanist Candidates Forum just prior to November’s election.

We have continued to bolster our exclusive partnership with the Business Courier as well. In addition to our readers getting discounted access to a digital premium subscription, we are also sharing more of our content with them so that our reporting on the city reaches an even larger audience in both print and on the web.

In 2014 we hope to enter into additional partnerships that will help get our content to even more people throughout the region and engage more people with the city.

Events
After starting URBANexchange in 2012, we have continued to host the monthly social event at the Moerlein Lager House. Now typically on the first Thursdays of each month, the events consistently draw a diverse collection of 20 to 40 people interested in urbanism. Many of these people are either new to Cincinnati or are looking to get more involved, and I am happy to say that these events are helping grow Cincinnati’s urbanist community.

In 2014 we will continue hosting the events and continue to engage you with area policy makers and influencers, and work to gather your thoughts and ideas about important policy issues. Plus, we hope to keep giving away unique prizes. Hopefully you can join us at our first URBANexchange of the New Year on Thursday, January 9 from 5:30pm to 8:30pm in the Moerlein Lager House’s biergarten.

Urbanist Candidates Forum

Content
One of the things UrbanCincy has always tried to do is connect area residents and visitors with the things happening in the city. This is still true today, but we are now fortunate to have a national audience. So while our focus is still on providing local coverage of public policy, urban design, transportation, arts and culture, we are now also connecting people from around the country with what is taking place here.

In 2013 we published 145 original stories, published 10 perspectives from readers in guest editorials, shared 103 of our insights about what we thought was interesting news from elsewhere in our Up To Speed posts, and produced 16 podcasts. Our ten most read stories in 2013 were:

  1. December 2, 2013: The Day Chaos Ruled City Hall: http://urbn.cc/p3ri
  2. Proposed 210-Unit Apartment Development Would Demolish Historic Christy’s & Lenhardt’s: http://urbn.cc/p2xy
  3. Final Designs Revealed for $125M Dunnhumby Centre Tower: http://urbn.cc/p3i3
  4. Pogue’s Garage to Make Way for 30-Story Residential Tower, Grocery Store: http://urbn.cc/p2yx
  5. EDITORIAL: Localizing Operating Costs for Streetcar Sets Dangerous Precedent: http://urbn.cc/p3sl
  6. GUEST EDITORIAL: Get Over It, Then Get Ready: http://urbn.cc/p3pk
  7. GUEST EDITORIAL: Horseshoe Casino Fails to Deliver on Urban Design: http://urbn.cc/p2zb
  8. IMAGE: Cincinnati to Grow Taller in the Coming Years: http://urbn.cc/p37p
  9. PHOTOS: Historic Glencoe-Auburn Place Row Houses Are Being Demolished: http://urbn.cc/p31l
  10. The Plot Continues to Thicken for Cincinnati’s $133M Streetcar Project: http://urbn.cc/p3s7

We also had two other stories that garnered a significant amount of interest by the way of comments, but didn’t crack the top ten for readership. The story readers commented on the most in 2013 was Paige’s opinion piece about Diner En Blanc held at Washington Park (104), and the second most comments (89) were left on our editorial calling for the consolidation of local governments in Hamilton County.

Our team also traveled to help bring additional perspective from other cities throughout the country and abroad. In 2013 John brought you stories from Europe and Portland; Jake traveled to Nashville; and I filed reports from Kansas City, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Seoul and Chicago. We will continue to use our travel to bring even more perspective into the issues we cover in Cincinnati. In 2014 we have already planned reports from Denver, Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis, Bangkok, Seattle, Hong Kong, Seoul, Nashville and Atlanta.

In 2014 you will also see us advocate more for specific projects and policy recommendations, based on our research and collaborations. In the past we have advocated for changing the city’s parking requirements, overhauling the city’s zoning code, and how to use the Riverfront Transit Center. In the coming weeks you will hear even more specific solutions from our team about how to address various problems and opportunities in our city today.

It has been nearly seven years since UrbanCincy started, and we are thrilled it is has become one of the largest independent sources for news in the region, and one of the most well-read websites focused on urbanism in the country.

We have some big plans for the year ahead and we hope that you will stick along for the ride. And while you’re at it, why don’t you bring a few friends. Thanks for all of your support.

EDITORIAL: Localizing Operating Costs for Streetcar Sets Dangerous Precedent

On Thursday morning Mayor John Cranley (D) called a press conference for a “major” announcement. He was joined by leadership of labor unions representing city workers, along with Councilman Kevin Flynn (C).

So what was the big news? Well, Mayor Cranley had announced that he would be willing to continue the Cincinnati Streetcar project that has already received direct voter approval twice, support of City Council, appropriated funds for its entire project cost, and began construction, if streetcar supporters could come up with a private funding commitment that would cover all operating costs for the first phase of the system over the next 30 years.

Oh yeah, and he asked that those boosters kindly secure that $60-80 million commitment in one week’s time.

Cincinnati Streetcar Construction Work at Government SquareUtility relocation work proceeded near Government Square on November 16, but whether that work will ever resume is up to Mayor Cranley and Councilmembers David Mann and Kevin Flynn. Photograph by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy.

Aside from the unprecedented request, a first of its kind for any transit program in America, it is troubling for two other key reasons. First, it sets a dangerous new precedent for how city government operates in Cincinnati, and secondly it is an obscene double standard for transit projects to force such a financial commitment.

Dangerous Precedent
With labor union representatives at his side, Mayor Cranley continually stated how he has an obligation to deliver the basic services we all cherish, and said that Cincinnati has a difficult enough time meeting current financial liabilities, much less new ones. As a result, he demanded that the private sector and streetcar supporters, should they actually support the project, put their skin in the game and fund its operations for the next 30 years.

That is all great campaign rhetoric, which Cranley used brilliantly leading up to the November 5 election, but it is completely irrational.

If the City of Cincinnati cannot afford any new financial liabilities, then will Mayor Cranley and his administration be requesting operating plans and financing for those new efforts from anything that comes to his desk? He has stated he wants to hire 200 new police officers, but who will shoulder the ongoing financial liability that will place on the City’s operating budget? Cranley has said he does not want to raise taxes, so that leaves only making cuts elsewhere to free up money for such a huge expansion of public safety forces.

Being and true and blue west sider that Mt. Lookout resident John Cranley is, he also supports the proposed Westwood Square project. While UrbanCincy also wholeheartedly supports that project and the form-based code it was borne out of, we have never seen a financing plan for it or any estimate for what its ongoing costs will be to the City. If “no new liabilities” means “no new liabilities” then we are concerned that Mayor Cranley’s new approach to governance will jeopardize the Westwood Square project.

Westwood SquareMayor Cranley’s dangerous new precedent might put the advancement of such projects as Westwood Square at-risk. If not, it would create a massive double standard. Image provided.

In addition to the Cincinnati Streetcar, 200 new police officers and Westwood Square, this new heavy-handed approach will also jeopardize the Wasson Way Trail, future phases of Smale Riverfront Park, improvements to the city’s waste collection operations, the rebuild of the Western Hills Viaduct, completion of the Ohio River Trail, and development of the Eastern Corridor. This new standard will also put at risk what the Cranley Administration seems to hold as the Holy Grail of all local projects – the MLK Interchange.

Should we also expect a move by the Cranley Administration to stop all construction activities and spending on the Waldvogel Viaduct that is currently being rebuilt? That project has never submitted a financial report that estimates a 30-year operating cost, much less any private sources to cover those ongoing financial liability costs.

Double Standard
UrbanCincy certainly hopes that this is in fact not a new standard protocol at City Hall, because it will put a stop to virtually everything the City does and bring the delivery of public services to a screeching halt. If that is the case, then Mayor Cranley’s olive branch to streetcar supporters is nothing more than a massive double standard.

Virtually every project the city undertakes adds liability costs. The Parking Modernization & Lease plan would have, of course, added none and in fact reduced future liability costs, but Mayor Cranley and his administration were quick to kill that deal as well.

And while this move by Mayor Cranley is typical of anti-transit forces around the country, it is also unacceptable. The user fee for roadways – the federal gas tax – has not been raised since 1993 and covers approximately 51% of the annual costs of maintaining our roadways. Public safety departments collect nowhere close to the amount of revenue they demand in terms of their costs to operate. Our schools, libraries, cultural institutions and parks all require taxpayer support, but such demands are not placed on them, nor should they.

Had Smale Riverfront Park been mandated by Mayor Cranley’s administration to provide 30 years’ worth of operating funds upfront in binding agreements before he approved any capital dollars for it to get started, then that project would most likely still not be started to this day. Instead, under normal governance, Smale Riverfront Park moved forward with its construction, and then capable leaders such as Willie Carden, Jr. were tasked with developing innovative and sustainable mechanisms to fund in over its lifespan.

It is unfortunate the Mayor Cranley and his administration have cornered Cincinntians into this position. It is unreasonable to ask our business community to fund public projects that should be funded by the public agency that committed to doing the project in the first place. Fortunately Cincinnati has proactive thinking leaders like Eric Avner and the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation working to meet the unreasonable demands of Mayor Cranley.

But should the business community deliver on this unreasonable request to fund the project’s operations for the next 30 years; then those investors should receive the returns the investment generates. The same is true if city residents want only those along the line to pay for its operations. If the costs must be localized, then so should its benefits.

Quite simply, residents elsewhere in the city who do not want to take on any risk deserve none of the returns.

The center city already subsidizes the public services provided to the city’s neighborhoods. If Mayor Cranley wants to continue on this damaging path of pitting neighborhoods against one another, then we will all quickly realize just how much we are dependent on one another economically.

In 2011, for example, the City of Cincinnati collected 71% of all city tax revenues from just eight neighborhoods: Downtown, Over-the-Rhine, West End, Queensgate, CUF, Corryville, Avondale and Clifton – collectively and colloquially as “Downtown” and “Uptown”.

The health and success of Downtown and Uptown is critically important to the overall health and success of the entire city. While many residents may believe that too much is invested in those areas, the reality is that those eight neighborhoods pay far more in taxes than they ever receive.

UrbanCincy is calling for an end to the divisiveness and to fully invest in our city’s future. Finish the Cincinnati Streetcar.

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.