Push for Daily Amtrak Service on Cincinnati Route Intensifies

The Chief Scout Executive of the Boy Scouts of America, Michael Surbaugh, appealed to Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman to upgrade Amtrak’s Cardinal from its current tri-weekly service to a daily train. In his December 15 letter, Chief Scout Surbaugh urged a temporary or trial daily Cardinal for the Boy Scouts of America’s National Jamboree, which will take place at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in Mt. Hope, West Virginia. Amtrak’s Cardinal serves stops all along this area, which directly services the 70,000-acre New River Gorge National River. Looking further into the future, the Boy Scouts will be holding their World Scout Jamboree at this same location in 2019.

The Boy Scouts of America have used their Southwest Chief-serviced location near Raton, New Mexico for large events for many years. As an attendee to the joint All Aboard Ohio and Amtrak “Cardinal Conference” hosted by the Cincinnati USA Chamber of Commerce in September – the Boy Scouts were made aware of the issues surrounding less-than-daily Cardinal service.

The Boy Scouts join a myriad of organizations along the line pushing for better service by those communities which are served by it, including the City of Oxford and Miami University, which moved one step closer to a new Cardinal stop in the city. Derek Bauman, All Aboard Ohio’s Vice Chair, stated that, “[w]e are thankful to the BSA for its letter which shows that interest in this enhanced rail service remains strong.”

In his letter to Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman, Chief Scout Surbaugh stated “I know I speak for all when I say that enhanced service would be a welcome addition offering the possibility of increased ridership and visitors to the New River Gorge.” The state of West Virginia seems to agree, as shown by the unanimous motion passed in favor of daily Cardinal service from the West Virginia Governor’s Conference on Tourism. Amtrak itself projected in 2010 that daily service on the Cardinal would result in nearly doubling the current number of passengers utilizing that train.

Proposed Amtrak Extensions and Upgrades (map via All Aboard Ohio)

One of the major challenges to running effective train service to Chicago via the Cardinal includes the condition of track on the current route. All Aboard Ohio Chairperson Ken Prendergast told UrbanCincy, “It should be noted that about 50-60 miles of the Chicago-Fort Wayne/Lima nearest to Chicago could be used by Cincinnati to Chicago trains. It would provide a much faster routing into Chicago than the current route of the Cardinal and any other Cincinnati – Chicago trains that may be added in the near future.”

Elsewhere in Ohio, a passenger rail line linking rail-starved cities like Columbus and Lima to Chicago via Ft. Wayne and Gary, IN received a major boost on Tuesday. Federal officials gave permission for communities along the line to begin the Alternative Analysis and Public Input process, which will do preliminary engineering, service planning, and measure environmental impacts. Those officials met at Ft. Wayne’s Baker Street Station, which saw its last passenger service in 1990. This analysis will being in January of 2017 and finish by the Fall of that same year. The $350,000 needed for this initial studying was raised by cities all along the line.

“This is the first step in the Project Development Process, which all major transportation projects must go through. Right now there is enough funding from communities and businesses west of Lima to do the Chicago-Lima portion but not farther east to Columbus” Prendergast stated.

Prendergast sees these lines as a next step in further connecting Ohio via rail between Chicago and the east coast. If a Chicago to Columbus line is created it is not impossible to  imagine future phases that could expand eastward beyond Columbus as well, Prendergast says, “there’s nothing that says the Eastern Terminus of this route has to be Columbus. In fact Amtrak services from Cleveland and Toledo could be routed over this Fort Wayne-Chicago segment. But we still believe Central Ohio will decide it’s in their economic interest to be a part of this project.”

Officials speaking at the news conference highlighted their big dreams and big plans for the new possible rail line. They called for initial service to run between 70-80mph, with eventual upgrades to 110mph. A 2013 study by the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association estimated that 10 trains a day along this line could generate up to 2 million annual passengers by 2020.

While both of these proposals require the cooperation of the freight railroads who own the lines (CSX and Norfolk Southern, respectively), many have hope because of Amtrak’s new CEO, Wick Moorman. Moorman is a veteran of the freight rail industry, having served more than 4 decades with Norfolk Southern and its predecessor, Southern. He has signaled that improved relations with the Class I freight railroads will be a focus of his tenure as CEO.

Kansas City Celebrating Grand Opening of Midwest’s First Modern Streetcar System

Cincinnati is scheduled to open up its modern streetcar system on September 15, but Kansas City is opening up a system with similar specs today. In fact, they will celebrate the occasion with two days of events aimed at introducing people to the new system.

At 2.2 miles in length, Kansas City has a smaller initial route than Cincinnati’s 3.6-mile system. City leaders there, however, have decided to make the system free to use; and have even made their bus system free during this initial celebration period. In Cincinnati, riders will need to pay $1.00 to ride the streetcar, but there is an ongoing debate about whether there will be an initial period where it will be free.

A video posted by UrbanCincy (@urbancincy) on

The opening of Kansas City’s system is particularly interesting due to the fact that the same streetcar vehicles are being used as the ones in Cincinnati. The City of Fountains has also been experiencing a similar explosion of investment on and around its initial $102 million streetcar segment.

“This is my first time visiting Kansas City, and it’s cool to see how much it’s like Cincinnati,” said Derek Bauman, Southwest Ohio director of All Aboard Ohio. “It’s a mid-sized, Midwestern river town; and everything that I’m seeing here coincides with what we’re seeing in Cincinnati – cranes, economic development, new hotels, new condos, new apartments and people moving back into the city.”

Bauman arrived in Kansas City yesterday and will be reporting live for UrbanCincy on our Facebook and Instagram channels over the next few days. He has already posted a number of videos and live reports from Kansas City showing the massive development taking place there, along with the design of their system.

With robust political support in Kansas City, their streetcar has already seen several major sponsors come on board including Sprint, which is the main sponsor and is also providing free wifi on the system, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City. Aside from verbal statements, Cincinnati’s corporate community has yet to step up and financially support the system in the same way.

Now that it is open to the public, Kansas City’s streetcar will operate from 6am to 12am Monday through Thursday, 6am to 2am on Fridays, 7am to 2am on Saturdays, and 7am to 10pm on Sundays. It will have 10 minute headways during peak weekday periods, and 12 to 18 minute headways all other times. Transportation officials in Kansas City estimate that the system will serve 2,700 riders per day.

“Like in Cincinnati, there is this buzz of people wanting to be in downtown, and live in walkable neighborhoods,” Bauman explained. “We’ve been talking about this for years, but now we’re seeing it come to fruition in both cities.”

You can follow Bauman’s reporting throughout today and tomorrow on Twitter @DerekBauman, live video streaming at Facebook.com/UrbanCincy, and through his photos at Instagram.com/UrbanCincy.

VIDEO: How Community Support Made The Cincinnati Streetcar a Reality

A new video series from Give Back Cincinnati focuses on new transportation choices in Cincinnati. In the first two installments, Cincy Red Bike and new Metro programs to attract young professional riders were covered. In the third and final installment, the series covers the Cincinnati Streetcar system which is scheduled to open in September of this year.

The video covers how the community came together in a grassroots effort to make the project a reality, and why it’s important that Cincinnati has taken the first step from being a bus only city to a multi-modal city.

Metro Looking For Feedback On How To Improve Regional Transit System

Over the past month, Metro has been hosting public listening sessions in order to get a better idea for what current and would-be transit riders are looking for out of the region’s largest transit provider.

While the five sessions have been completed, Metro is still accepting feedback through an online survey that takes about five minutes to complete. Agency officials have not said when that process will be closed, but they say that the goal is to compile the data by the end of the year.

This public feedback process falls in line with growing speculation that Metro will ask Hamilton County voters next fall to approve a sales tax increase that would pay for expanded bus service throughout the county. As it is now, Metro is almost exclusively funded by the City of Cincinnati, and thus primarily provides service within those boundaries. Service outside of those boundaries costs riders extra – a situation that would be removed should voters approve the sales tax increase.

“At the end of the day, the transit system belongs to the people,” explained Jason Dunn, SORTA Board Chair. “It is our job to be good stewards of the transit system and uphold its mission. Ultimately, we’ll use this feedback to help us make decisions that will set the agenda for transit in the future.”

The public is asked to weigh in on a number of key items in the survey, including where bus service should be extended, and what kinds of operating schedules are preferred. The survey also asks about whether real-time arrival display boards, enhanced shelters and ticketing machines would be desired. All of these are items Metro has been adding over recent years, but at a modest pace.

In relation to service operations, Metro officials ask about adding more direct crosstown routes, park-and-ride lots, operating buses earlier or later, increasing weekend frequencies, and adding service to major commercial corridors like Glenway Avenue, Hamilton Avenue, Vine Street, Reading Road and Madison Avenue.

Each of these corridors have been identified for more robust service akin to what has been done along Montgomery Road, which features the first Metro*Plus route in the region. While not full-blown bus rapid transit, Metro officials see it as a step in that direction with its more frequent service, enhanced bus shelters and less frequent stops that allow for faster travel.

Of course, without a dedicated regional transit tax many of these improvements will be difficult to accomplish, or take many years to realize. In the most recent round of TIGER funding, Cincinnati did not apply for any transit-related projects, nor did it even compete for any funds in the recent distribution of the FTA’s Transit-Oriented Development Planning Pilot Program.

While City Hall focused its TIGER grant applications on the Elmore Street Bridge and Wasson Way, both of which were unsuccessful, Metro officials said they did not apply for the FTA funds because they did not believe they had projects ready for successful consideration. But some local transit advocates disagree.

“Our elected officials and administrators are asleep at the wheel,” said Derek Bauman, Southwest Ohio Director of All Aboard Ohio and Chair of Cincinnatians for Progress. “Pools of money exist, particularly at the federal level, for all types of transit planning and construction. We must at accept that times have changed, prepare for the modes of transportation that people are demanding today, and then avail ourselves to resources to make it happen as they become available.”

An additional meeting will be held to gather public feedback from young professionals on Wednesday, November 11 from 6pm to 7:30pm at MORTAR Cincinnati in Over-the-Rhine. Metro CEO and General Manager Dwight Ferrell will be there to take part in the Q/A, and the first 50 people in attendance will receive a free $10 stored value bus pass.

Metro officials say that all of the feedback from the listening sessions and online survey will be considered by the newly created Metro Futures Task Force, which is made up of community leaders who will then present their findings to the SORTA Board in early 2016.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect an additional public meeting that will be held on the evening of Wednesday, November 11.

Beyond Downtown, Cleveland’s RTA Rebuild Spurring New Development

Amidst further positive national news for upgraded Midwestern rail service, All Aboard Ohio met in Cleveland for their summer meet-up. At the weekend-long gathering, the group toured the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s numerous heavy rail, light rail, and bus rapid transit lines.

Often unknown to outsiders, the Cleveland area boasts some 39 miles of rail transit, with daily ridership of over 53,000. As a result, Cleveland’s transit ridership dwarfs that of both Cincinnati and Columbus. Even though Cleveland is approximately the same size as Cincinnati and Columbus, its transit ridership is bigger than both of them combined.

In addition, All Aboard Ohio executive director Ken Prendergast led the tour and showcased the substantial amount of transit-oriented development that is taking place throughout Cleveland.

With the opening of Cincinnati’s first few miles of rail transit just over a year away, it made the tour particularly relevant. As a result, I was joined by a small Cincinnati contingent including City Councilman Chris Seelbach (D), SW Ohio Director of All Aboard Ohio Derek Bauman, and Price Hill community leader Pete Witte.

The group’s tour began at Terminal City Tower in downtown Cleveland, where inter-city trains once stopped and all rapid transit lines currently meet. From there we took the Green Line to the lakefront, passing large-scale transit-oriented development along the Cuyahoga River, the Port of Cleveland, Cleveland Brown Stadium, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the city’s Amtrak station.

Negotiations are currently underway for the construction of a large intermodal hub where Amtrak is currently located, combining Amtrak, Greyhound, Megabus, and many local buses from Akron and other cities into one complex.

The Green Line’s E. 55th Street Station was showcased after having been rehabbed in 2011. It is part of GCRTA’s program to rebuild every station in its system. Nearby this still young station, an old hospital is undergoing a $75 million redevelopment that will refit it with apartments.

Changing to the Blue Line, the train ran through semi-suburban areas that reminded the Cincinnati contingent of the Wasson Corridor. Among these areas is the Van Aken District at the Warrensville Station at the end of the line. There, Joyce Braverman, the planning director for Shaker Heights, gave us a walking tour of the area and detailed the numerous transit-oriented developments currently under construction, including a $91 million residential development and a rebuild of a pedestrian-unfriendly intersection.

A newly renovated station – just four days old – greeted us at Little Italy along with the Feast of the Assumption Festival. In addition to the throngs of neighborhood residents filing in and out of the trains, redevelopment can be found nearby in University Circle. During an opportunity to speak with the president of University Circle Inc., he boasted about the area’s transformation from a run-down district with multiple surface parking lots into one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods.

The numbers back up the claims. In just a decade, more than $6 billion in private investment has flowed to the neighborhood, generating some 10,000 new jobs and 11,000 new residents.

While serviced by RTA’s Red Line, this particular area is also anchored by Cleveland’s now famous Health Line BRT, which runs along Euclid Avenue to the center city and is the highest-rated BRT line in North America.

Through this station rebuilding program, Cleveland has used it as an opportunity to leverage an impressive amount of private investment in the surrounding areas. While success of downtown Cleveland has been well-publicized amidst the continued struggles elsewhere in the region, there are bright spots popping up along the city’s transit corridors. With more than 100 rail and BRT stations in the region, many more opportunities seem to be on the horizon.