East Side Commuter Rail Project in Doubt Following Vote to Develop Oasis Line as Trail

The fate of a long-planned commuter rail line along the eastern riverfront took an abrupt turn over the past month. With the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) Board voting 12-1 in favor of a plan to use it for the Ohio River Trail, it puts a severe damper on one day using it as commuter rail to the city’s eastern suburbs.

The commuter rail, commonly referred to as the Oasis Line, had been pursued by Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune (D) for many years. Over time the Oasis Line had become a component of the much larger Eastern Corridor project, which is also now facing a very unclear future of its own.

SORTA purchased the right-of-way in 1994 for $4 million, after which it sold the more southern of the parallel-running tracks and easement to Genesee & Wyoming – the parent company of the Indiana & Ohio Railway Company – which also has the rights to utilize the northern tracks that would be paved over as part of this plan.

As a result, SORTA officials still need to work out details with G&W in order to allow the bike trail to move forward.

“After a comprehensive three-month review of all aspects of the issue, the SORTA Board has overwhelmingly endorsed the concept of a temporary bike trail on the Oasis Line,” said Jason Dunn, Chair of the SORTA Board. “We will do all in our power to work collaboratively with our partners to support the development of the trail.”

The 4.75-mile section of trail will complete the Ohio River Trail on the city’s east side. This segment is estimated to cost $4 million, of which $1 million has already been raised by Ohio River Way. Other portions of the Ohio River Trail, which connects to the Little Miami Scenic Trail, have been completed in a piecemeal fashion over the years.

Project supporters say that if everything goes smoothly, the multipurpose trail could open as early as 2017.

“The trail is an asset that the community clearly wants and it will be an enhancement to multimodal transportation in the region,” Dunn stated in a prepared media release.

SORTA officials say the next steps call for working out regulatory issues with federal agencies, and coming up with a design for the trail that is both safe and amenable to G&W.

While this move may hamper future efforts of developing commuter rail along this corridor, SORTA officials structured the agreement to allow for future flexibility. This includes the design of what the transit agency is calling a “temporary trail” that does not preclude from future passenger rail service along the Oasis Line.

To some passenger rail advocates, however, the prospect of the Oasis Line going away is a good one.

“The riverfront is a perfect place for a recreational trail, while light rail transit would be better-suited serving our neighborhoods,” Derek Bauman, Chair of Cincinnatians for Progress and SW Ohio Director for All Aboard Ohio, told UrbanCincy. “We should move forward with this plan to complete the Ohio River Trail, and then shift our attention to developing a recreational trail and light rail line along the Wasson Corridor.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: In August 2010, UrbanCincy provided an in-depth look at the plans for the Oasis Line. Then in February 2012, UrbanCincy published a controversial editorial that called for a new vision with the Oasis Line being utilized as a trail, and the Wasson Line as a combined trail and light rail corridor.

Transit Ridership Inches Forward in Ohio’s Largest Metropolitan Centers

While transit ridership nationwide inched upward and reached its highest level in more than a half century, it remained flat in Ohio’s two largest metropolitan regions.

According to new data released by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), transit ridership in both Cincinnati and Cleveland remained essentially unchanged from 2013 to 2014. With a 3% ridership gain over the previous year, Columbus bucked the trend and posted the fifth highest bus ridership gain nationally.

“In 2014, people took a record 10.8 billion trips on public transportation — the highest annual ridership number in 58 years,” said Phillip Washington, APTA Chair and CEO & General Manager of the Regional Transportation District in Denver. “Some public transit systems experienced all-time record high ridership last year.”

In a nod to Columbus, Washington said that the increases were not just relegated to large cites, but were found in smaller and medium size communities as well. But according to Streetsblog USA, an UrbanCincy content partner, the national increases can be largely attributed to the large gains in New York City, which accounts for roughly 25% of American transit ridership.

Growth in transit ridership is expected to continue in the years ahead as dozens of cities throughout the United States build out regional rail networks and implement new bus services. In Cincinnati, that includes new services operating out of the recently opened Uptown Transit District and the forthcoming Northside Transit Center and Walnut Hills Transit District.

The opening of the first leg of the Cincinnati Streetcar is also expected to boost ridership in 2016. Until then, Cleveland will remain as the only city in Ohio to have both bus and rail offerings. Not surprisingly, Cleveland’s transit usage dwarfs that of both Cincinnati and Columbus.

While year-over-year ridership only increased nationally by 1%, that gain is seen as encouraging since it occurred at the same time as prices for gasoline plummeted. Transportation officials see continued transit ridership growth, in addition to VMT growth for the first time in nearly a decade, as a clear indication of a much stronger economy where more people are employed.

“Since nearly 60 % of the trips taken on public transportation are for work commutes, public transportation ridership increases are seen in areas where the local economy is growing,” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy.

In spite of Cincinnati’s growing economy, transit ridership actually posted a slight loss. That loss, however, is in line with national bus ridership trends. While Cincinnati saw an annual decrease of 1.8%, bus ridership across the country also experienced a 1.1% decline. All modes of rail transit, meanwhile, posted gains, which now accounts for 46% of all trips made by transit.

Light rail systems posted the biggest annual gain of 3.6%, while heavy rail and commuter rail added riders by 3.3% and 2.9%, respectively.

“People are changing their travel behavior and want more travel options,” Melaniphy concluded. “In the past people had a binary choice. You either took public transit, most likely a bus, or you drove a car. Now there are multiple options with subways, light rail, streetcars, commuter trains, buses, ferries, cars and shared use vehicles.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: APTA’s annual report does not include ridership data for the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK), which provides approximately 3.8 million trips annually. For the purposes of this analysis, UrbanCincy has used a constant 3.8 million annual trips from TANK in the Cincinnati totals presented in the above chart.

New Transit Hubs on the Way for Northside, Walnut Hills

Walnut Hills and Northside have long been two of the region’s busiest transit hubs, and now it appears that they will finally get their due as part of an ongoing effort by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) to broaden its services beyond its traditional hub-and-spoke model.

To-date those efforts have included the construction of the Glenway Crossing Transit Center, Uptown Transit District and Montgomery Road Metro*Plus Route – all of which have been found to be helping boost ridership.

Two action items before today’s meeting of SORTA’s Planning & Operations Committee call for the award of funds to two companies to design transit hubs in both neighborhoods.

The first item is a $126,000 award to Woolpert. This contract would fund the final design and construction contract services for what is being called the Walnut Hills Transit District, which would include new passenger shelters, lighting, route information, sidewalk improvements and other amenities at seven bus stops throughout the Peeble’s Corner District.

While not yet approved, the investment was hinted at when Metro announced that monthly passes and regional stored-value cards would be available for purchase at the Walnut Hills Kroger.

The second item on the agenda would provide $319,000 to Michael Schuster Associates Architects (MSA), who also designed Government Square and the Uptown Transit District, to provide the preliminary and final design and construction contract administration services for an off-street transit center in the heart of Northside’s business district at the intersection of Spring Grove, Hamilton and Blue Rock.

According to official documents, the new transit center will include new passenger shelters, pedestrian-scale lighting, next bus information, sidewalk and waiting area improvements, and other amenities. Further adding to the firm’s strength, MSA had completed a conceptual layout for the Northside Transit Center in 2012.

According to SORTA officials, the funds for both of these allocations will come from the agency’s annual capital budget funding.

For Northside it comes at a particularly good time, as the first Cincy Red Bike station outside of Uptown or Downtown is currently being installed.

Designs for Two-Way Street Conversion in East Walnut Hills Nearly Complete

Over the past four months, city planners and engineers have been working away on concepts that would transform William Howard Taft Road and E. McMillan Street into streets with two-way travel. During that time public feedback has been gathered and designs have been revised.

The actual work began much earlier than that when the City of Cincinnati converted portions of those same two streets through the Walnut Hills neighborhood back in 2012. There was some trepidation at the time in East Walnut Hills, but those have seemingly faded away following the successful conversion of those streets to the west.

“This two-way conversion will make the two neighborhoods much more connected, and make the distance between DeSales Corner and Peeble’s Corner more walkable,” explained Kevin Wright, Executive Director of Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. “Our goal is to make the two districts more connected, and this is one of many changes that will be put in place to make that area more walkable.”

Some of those other changes include the redevelopment of historic buildings throughout the business district, establishment of new public gathering spaces, and potential upgrades to the district’s bus service.

Since the last round of public meetings, staff from Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation & Engineering (DOTE) have prepared updated alternatives for traffic flow and streetscape enhancements. These alternatives were presented at a public meeting on February 25, 2015, which included many residents and business owners from the East Walnut Hills neighborhood.

The modifications include the addition of off-peak parking on the north side of William Howard Taft Road between Woodburn Avenue and Ashland Avenue, the addition of left turn lanes from E. McMillan Street to Victory Parkway, and the addition of a landscaped island on the east leg of the Woodburn Avenue and E. McMillan Street intersection.

Project officials say there will be another round of public feedback on these changes, and members of the public are encouraged to share their feedback with Greg Koehler [greg.koehler@cincinnati-oh.gov] or Curtis Hines [curtis.hines@cincinnati-oh.gov] by Wednesday, March 11.

53T Hoping to Breathe New Life Into Cincinnati’s Bike Courier Industry

After years of few options for those seeking food or product delivery in Cincinnati, several companies have started to spring up over the past year. One of those includes 53T, which is not only offering delivery services, but doing so in an effort to bring back the city’s once vibrant bike courier industry.

Although limited to Over-the-Rhine, Downtown and the West End, 53T offers delivery from seven different restaurants, and parcel delivery that utilizes their cargo bikes and trailers.

Local eateries served by 53T include Happy Belly on Vine, Pho Lang Thang, Cheapside Café, Quan Hapa, Park+Vine and Brezel. Pi Pizzeria was most recently added in February.

Dave Adams and Ian Bulling partnered to start 53T early last year. The two started working on the concept independently, but were introduced to each other in January 2014, and decided to team up.

Each has their own reason for wanting to start the business. Bulling was working as a bicycle messenger and wanted to keep making a living at it, while also bringing back the bike messenger community that existed in the city a decade ago.

“Like the advertising industry, legal work involved a continual flow of documents circulating throughout the city,” Jeffrey Kidder wrote in his 2011 book entitled Urban Flow: Bike Messengers and the City. “While the advertising industry is an example of why bike couriers are still useful, it should be apparent that much of what messengers were delivering in the early 1980s can now be digitized…In fact, messengers today are delivering little more than the table scraps remaining from the grand conversion to virtual data.”

In understanding that changing landscape, Adams says it was the lack of restaurant delivery options prompted him to enter the business. After identifying that need, he worked with Bulling to develop a business plan, and then go through the CO.STARTERS business planning course for creative entrepreneurs.

“It really helped in synthesizing getting our ideas together, realizing what we had to do on a daily basis, on a yearly basis, as far as stuff as basic as tax filings,” said Bulling. “There were a lot of things we overlooked initially, and it helped to get some dialogue started between us that may not have otherwise happened.”

Bulling explained that their business is named for a 53 tooth, which is typically the largest chain ring on a road bike, and equates to the quickest gear on a bike.

Adams and Bulling are 53T’s principal couriers, but they say that they employ other riders as contractors and demand dictates. That demand, Bulling says, has been picking up since their launch last June.

“We have gotten an explosion in volume since the new year” Bulling explained. “We got a spike in October when it started getting cold and then in January we got hit hard.”

In mid-February they extended evening delivery hours to 9pm, with service from Pi Pizzeria, Quan Hapa and Brezel during those expanded times. Currently 53T only offers service on weekdays, but Bulling noted that they have contemplated the idea of adding weekend service as well. The problem, he says, is that their clients are so busy on weekends that they are concerned about adding to their kitchen volume with deliveries.

In the future, the pair also is looking to add service to areas outside of the center city.

“Since our model is so simple, when we get to that point it’s just as easy as transplanting to Northside or Mt. Adams or Walnut Hills,” Adams explained.

From there he says that they would most likely create different zones throughout the city that would operate separately from one another, but under the same organizational structure.

In many cities, including Cincinnati, courier services like this have taken a hit due to the increasing use and reliability of electronic communications. Since the courier industry had typically focused on the delivery of documents, Adams and Bulling said they needed to find a new niche delivering food and parcels.

“I think the model in the industry has been expanding to be as flexible as possible, diversifying the kind of work you’re doing,” stated Bulling. “I think there’s a lot of potential for same-day retail delivery.”

Same-day delivery is something a number of businesses in the center city are already doing on their own, but the potential seems even greater to Adams and Bulling. They have added delivery options for Park+Vine, for example, but so far just focus on their lunch counter.

“We wanted them [Park+Vine] as a client so when we do expand into doing grocery delivery or ancillary items, we will already have them as a client and it will be easy to get started.”

They are not alone in their positive outlook on the industry, as Cincybite launched similar offerings at the end of 2013. One key difference between the two, however, is that Cincybite utilizes cars for their operations instead of bikes.

“I think the thing that distinguishes us from those companies is that we love what we do and we take what we do very seriously,” Bullings responded. “We believe that what we do takes a certain unique set of skills and physical ability, and I think that dedication and passion comes through in our work. Plus, we’re faster than cars.”