Support Continues to Grow for Daily Train Service Between Cincinnati and Chicago

Midwest Regional Rail ServiceOhio is surprisingly one of the nation’s least-served states by intercity passenger rail service, but All Aboard Ohio is working to change that.

Perhaps best well known for their fruitless advocacy for the 3C Corridor – an intercity passenger rail line that would have linked Ohio’s largest cities – All Aboard Ohio has regained relevancy as of late. While continually advocating for improvements on existing Amtrak service across the northern reaches of the state, the non-profit organization has also become increasingly involved with efforts to establish rail service between Columbus and Chicago, and Cincinnati and Chicago.

Columbus currently has no connections to the capital of the economically robust Great Lakes region, but Cincinnati does, albeit ever so slightly. As of now, Cincinnatians can get to Chicago via the scrappy three-day-a-week train service offered on Amtrak’s Cardinal Route. In addition to not being daily service, trains infamously arrive and depart in the middle of the night.

This is something, however, that area leaders and All Aboard Ohio officials are working to change. One potential example, they say, is to extend existing service offered on Amtrak’s Hoosier Route. The combination of Amtrak’s Cardinal and Hoosier routes offers Indianapolis daily service to Chicago. From there, the hope is to make gradual improvements to bring the service up to 110mph speeds.

“There is a buzz and excitement in southwest Ohio about connecting to Indy and Chicago that is palpable,” explained Derek Bauman, SW Ohio Director for All Aboard Ohio. “Even those that have not necessarily been fans of previous rail projects see the necessity of connecting to Chicago – the business and commerce epicenter of the U.S. between the coasts.”

The energy Bauman speaks of was recently seen at an area meeting held by All Aboard Ohio at the Christian Moerlein Tap Room in Over-the-Rhine. According to Ken Prendergast, Executive Director of All Aboard Ohio, such meetings are typically pretty dull, but this was not the case in Cincinnati.

“Our free local meetings are usually less extravagant than our statewide meetings, and are more akin to briefing or coordination gatherings,” Prendergast told UrbanCincy. “They generally only draw a dozen or two dozen people, so this meeting’s attendance was pretty good.”

All Aboard Ohio welcomed Cincinnati City Councilwoman Amy Murray (R) as their special guest. Over the past few months Murray has taken on a bit of a leadership role in the discussion about establishing daily rail service to Indianapolis and onward to Chicago. Her leadership has also come at a time when Hamilton County Commissioners, in a surprising fashion, voted unanimously in favor of studying the establishment of such service.

Bauman says that All Aboard Ohio has been working with the OKI Regional Council of Governments on a potential scope and funding plan for a feasibility study on the manner, following the unanimous vote from Greg Hartmann (R), Todd Portune (D) and Chris Monzel (R). He says that the group has also been meeting with local jurisdictions and business leaders to grow support even further.

“A big part of this is educating stakeholders on what our competitor regions throughout the Midwest are doing,” said Bauman. “For example, Detroit has three Amtrak roundtrips a day, Milwaukee has seven, St. Louis has five, and even Carbondale, IL has three. Simply put, we are being left behind.”

Some of that recent outreach has included both Hamilton and Oxford – communities that sit along the existing Cardinal Route and would be prime candidates for stops in a case where service is enhanced. To that extent, both communities, in addition to Miami University, have expressed their support for the effort. Now, according to Bauman, the next steps are to reach out to Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati.

“As we continue to work with business and government leaders toward establishing at least daily service to Cincinnati, coordinating with our regional institutions of higher learning will be a growing and vital piece of our advocacy partnership focus,” Bauman explained. “Bringing back proper inter-city rail services will be transformative for our region and positively impact the lives of people.”

Ruling From Judge Stich Potentially Very Damaging for Local Governments in Ohio

Cincinnati Streetcar Phase 1 RouteThe Business Courier reported yesterday that Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Carl Stich (R) ruled that the City of Cincinnati must pay for the relocation of Duke Energy’s utilities along the first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar system.

As learned from a leaked internal memo last December, this decision was expected by city officials who will now be on the hook for an additional $15 million in costs – expenses that will be covered by the project’s existing contingency fund.

In Stich’s ruling, he cited an Ohio Supreme Court case from 1955, Speeth v. Carney, that stated government-owned transit systems are proprietary functions, not government ones. This is important because that is what lays the foundation for Stich’s ruling, but also sets a potentially far-reaching precedence for what costs local governments are expected to bear when making infrastructure investments.

As a result, former city solicitor John Curp says that Cincinnati should appeal the ruling.

“The troubling element of the ruling for local governments is that the court looked under the hood of the streetcar and based its decision on one debated effect of the project rather than principal operation of the project, which is transportation,” Curp told the Business Courier – an UrbanCincy content partner. “Nearly every government project is justified as an economic development project. If applied more broadly, this decision could add significant costs to local government infrastructure projects.”

Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black seems to agree, and says that the city will in fact appeal the ruling.

Furthermore, Judge Stich did address the fact that the rulings used to make his decision were quite old and rendered during a time when private companies owned and operated public transit systems. This is a notable difference from today where that is largely non-existent, and would seemingly change the entire discussion in a case of this nature.

“The court noted that the case it found controlling was an anachronism to a bygone era where private companies ran public transportation,” Curp said. “The current reality is that government heavily subsidizes almost all forms of public transportation. No one mistakes public transportation as a proprietary, money-making venture. An appeal would help ensure that all local governments are working on equal footing and none have a competitive advantage on costs for new infrastructure projects”

In addition to Duke Energy, there are a half-dozen other utility companies that are within the project area, but all of those companies had come to terms with the City prior to the commencement of construction. The question now is what financial obligations, if any, those companies will have on future infrastructure projects pursued by City Hall.

Furthermore, the decision shines an interesting light on how infrastructure projects and their associated costs are rarely neatly defined. These utility costs, for example, are being covered through the budget for the streetcar, but have nothing to do with rail transit. In fact, a large sum of the budget for the Cincinnati Streetcar is actually allocated to things that have nothing to do (e.g. buried utilities, utility upgrades and relocations, and road resurfacing) with the direct construction or operation of the transit system.

The project, however, brings up a very convenient and cost-effective time in which to make such improvements. As has been discovered thus far, many of these improvements have been sorely needed. In Over-the-Rhine, for example, broken water mains, wooden pipes and other outdated infrastructure has been discovered and either repaired or upgraded as a result of the project.

This is a coup for any utility company that can have the cost of upgrading their systems shouldered by the taxpayers, instead of their ratepayers, as such is the case in this Duke Energy example.

Since much of the costs for the project are related to non-streetcar items, it seems to lean toward Curp’s concern of the ruling being applied more broadly.

“The case is also important for other cities in Ohio,” said City Manager Black. “The decision may ultimately dictate who pays for local infrastructure improvements that require the movement of utilities on public property: the taxpayers or the utility.”

With an appeal forthcoming, it appears that lawyers will continue to reap the benefits of this political battle. Meanwhile, construction progresses on the Cincinnati Streetcar project on-time and on-budget.

Why did so few people vote in Tuesday’s election?

Election day was a great day for Republicans. It was was not, however, a good day for our democracy. President Obama notably commented on the fact that two-thirds of the nation chose not to participate in the election in his remarks the day after results came in. But perhaps most depressing is that Ohio set a record for the lowest turnout in history for a gubernatorial election. More from the Columbus Dispatch:

Ohio just set a modern record low for turnout in a gubernatorial election. And it wasn’t even close. Although provisional ballots and some absentees remain to be counted, the rate with all precincts reporting election-night totals to the secretary of state’s office is 39.99 percent.

The previous low since statewide voter registration data have been kept (1978) was 47.18 percent, when Republican Gov. Bob Taft won an easy re-election victory in 2002.

Transit Users Will Need 7 Hours to Commute to ODOT Public Transit Meeting

An event making the rounds on social media hosted by the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) provides an opportunity for citizens to tell Governor John Kasich’s (R) administration about public transportation improvements they’d like to see in their city. The public meeting to discuss statewide transit needs is hosted on Friday, October 31 from 10am to 12pm at the Warren County OhioMeansJobs Center in Lebanon.

While the gathering has good intention, it fails to meet the basic criteria of planning a public involvement meeting:

  1. Never host a public meeting on a holiday.
  2. Never host a public meeting on a Friday or weekend.
  3. The location of a public meeting should be accessible to all members of the community and able to attract a diverse group of citizens.

By car, Lebanon is roughly a one hour drive north of Cincinnati, and a 30-minute drive south from Dayton. It’s also the city where the regional ODOT office is located; understandably why the administration would opt to hold a public involvement meeting here. What went unconsidered are the needs of people that the public meeting is focused on: citizens reliant on public transportation.

The closest Metro bus stop to Lebanon is 8.3 miles away, near Kings Island in Mason. Let’s say we’re feeling ambitious and attempt to take the bus, then bicycle the remaining journey to Lebanon. It would take 48 minutes to cycle to the meeting in addition to the 1 hour, 11 minute ride on the bus. Cincinnati Metro, the region’s bus system, only offers select service to the northern suburbs. In order to arrive on time for the 10am meeting, a person dependent on transit would have to catch the 71x at 7:45am, arrive in Mason at 8:52am, then continue to the meeting on bicycle.

Getting back home is another story. The public involvement meeting adjourns at 12pm, but the bus route that services Mason is a job connection bus, meaning it only runs traditional hours when people are going to and from work. After another 48 minutes of cycling back to the bus stop, the inbound 71x picks up shortly after 3pm and returns to Cincinnati at 4:40pm.

In summary, if a citizen dependent on bus transportation wishes to give ODOT their input, they would spend 7 hours commuting to the two hour meeting, and need to able-bodied to ride a bicycle for eight miles. What about senior citizens and people with disabilities? Who can afford to take an entire day off work to attend a meeting? As a transit rider who has a car, driving an hour each way to attend the meeting –in the middle of the work day– for me, is inconvenient and unfeasible.

The poor choice of trying to combine Cincinnati and Dayton into one meeting was an unfortunate oversight in event planning. Instead, meetings should be hosted in the downtown of each city, just like they have been in Columbus and Cleveland which are also participating in the ODOT series.

Since 2011, Governor Kasich has cut $4 million from the state’s public transit budget, leaving Ohio with one of the lowest funded transit systems in the country. If there’s a genuine interest in hearing how those cuts affect the people that rely on public transportation the most, the administration needs to schedule a second meeting in Cincinnati near Government Square where those people can actually get to.

Of course, this isn’t the first time area transit users have been ignored when it comes to public meeting locations. Earlier this year, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) upheld a decision to relocate Hamilton County’s Board of Elections office to a location that would take up to four hours to access by transit.

16-Bit Bar+Arcade to Open Largest-Ever Location in OTR at Mercer Commons

Troy Allen announced through our friends up north at Columbus Underground that the wildly popular 16-Bit Bar+Arcade will open a Cincinnati location in 2015.

The Columbus-based business opened its first “barcade” to overflowing crowds late last summer and added a Cleveland-area bar in Lakewood earlier this year.

It’s the kind of place that is perfect for those that want to cherish their memories of the late 1980s. Not only do the arcade games date back to that time, but the cocktails served at 16-Bit Bar+Arcade also take their names from the icons of that era.

While there is no food provided, Allen says that customers are always able to bring food in from neighboring restaurants. That means that you can hang out, eat and drink inside while playing throwback arcade games and enjoying music and television from the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“It’s a throwback concept; when you step inside, you’re really immersing yourself in the ’80s and early ’90s,” Allen explained. “It’s next to impossible not to smile about something.”

The barcade would have opened in Over-the-Rhine even sooner had 3CDC had its way, but the owners were not quite ready for expansion a year ago. Allen did say, however, that they have been looking at spaces in Over-the-Rhine for the past year; and that he’s happy to finally have the paperwork signed.

Occupying 4,300 square feet at Mercer Commons, the Cincinnati location will be the largest 16-Bit to-date. Allen says that it will have almost the same style as their locations in Columbus and Cleveland; and that they will have the same amount of arcade games, but with a bit more room to move around. Located at the corner of Walnut and Mercer Streets, the location will also have garage doors that open up along Mercer.

“We are dedicated to giving everyone that walks through our door a killer experience while exceeding their expectations,” Allen said. “We truly appreciate the feedback and input, we will continue to evolve and refine the business to meet as many expectations as possible.”

Once open, 16-Bit Bar+Arcade will be open Monday through Friday from 4pm to 2:30am, and Saturday to Sunday from 12pm to 2:30am. The owners are aiming to open up sometime in the first quarter of 2015.

EDITORIAL NOTE: All five photos were taken by Flickr user Sam Howzit in July 2014.