UrbanCincy, Niehoff Studio to Host Regional Discussion on Wasson Corridor

In May 2013, UrbanCincy partnered with the Niehoff Urban Studio to produce an event that highlighted the final work of engineering and urban planning students studying bus rapid transit and bikeways throughout the region. We then showcased their work and engaged the capacity crowd with a panel discussion between some of the region’s foremost experts on the subjects.

One of the hot topics at that event was the Wasson Corridor, which runs through the heart of Cincinnati’s eastern neighborhoods.

The Future of the Wasson Way Bike Trail and Light Rail Corridor

The corridor has long been in regional transit plans as the location for a light rail line, but recent advocacy efforts have been working to convert the abandoned freight rail right-of-way into a recreational trail for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Following UrbanCincy’s controversial editorial opposing the corridor’s conversion into a bike/ped trail, the conversation has shifted to one focused on creating a multi-modal corridor that accommodates the long-planned light rail and the newly envisioned recreational trail.

The next stage of that dialogue will occur this Thursday back at the Niehoff’s Community Design Center in Corryville.

Over the past semester, interdisciplinary students from the University of Cincinnati have been studying the Wasson Corridor and will be presenting their work at this event.

Following the open house where guests can view the final projects, UrbanCincy will then host a panel discussion with Michael Moore, Director of Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation & Engineering (DOTE); Eric Oberg, Manager of the Midwest Rails to Trails Conservancy; Mel McVay, Senior Planner at Cincinnati DOTE; Nern Ostendorf, Executive Director of Queen City Bike. The discussion will be moderated by UrbanCincy’s Jake Mecklenborg.

The event is free and open to the public. The open house portion of the evening will take place from 5pm to 6pm, and the panel discussion will follow immediately at 6pm and go until about 7:30pm.

Light food and refreshments will be provided and a cash bar will be available during the open house. The Niehoff’s Community Design Center can be accessed directly off of Short Vine at the southeast corner of Daniels and Vine Street.

Streetcar opponents don’t just oppose streetcars, they oppose all transit investments

We have heard it all before here in Cincinnati. In 2002 the problem COAST and others had with MetroMoves was that it was too big and too expensive. That county-wide transit tax lost at the polls and put regional rail and bus transit on the backburner. So what to do next? Well if that was too big, then let’s start smaller. So the City of Cincinnati decided to pursue a small component of that regional plan that could be implemented without raising taxes.

The problem opponents now cite is that the Cincinnati Streetcar is a “toy choo-choo train” that “doesn’t go anywhere.” Their alternative is to invest in Metro’s bus system and perhaps operate a center city, rubber tire trolley. While the regional bus improvements should be done regardless, the problem is that these opponents are not willing to commit to any funding for these improvements. They’re empty offers, and like Cincinnati, San Antonio is dealing with the same nonsense. More from The Atlantic:

The precise difference between streetcars and light rail may not be important to those opposing VIA’s plans. State Senator Campbell’s recent complaint to the attorney general reportedly stated that ATD funds should only be used “to improve San Antonio’s roads,” even though the law that created the ATD sales tax doesn’t impose that restriction. What’s being truly opposed here may just be rail projects in general, whatever their form. “For some folks, if it’s on a rail, it’s rail,” says Gonzalez.

Attorney General Abbott rejected VIA’s bond sales — a move that caught the agency by surprise, since Abbott had issued preliminary approval for them. The streetcar lawsuit was immediately dropped, with the opponents saying they got what they wanted.

Gonzalez says VIA is considering whether to use an alternative avenue through the court system to get approval for the bond sales. For now, he sees a situation rife with irony. For one thing, the streetcar opponents who claim to be fighting for taxpayers are actually costing the city money to deal with the lawsuits and the bond delay. Beyond that, the real losers at the moment are not streetcar advocates at all but the bus riders who use the transit centers.

New app allows users to tell their Congressional reps about inadequate transport

Do you find yourself frustrated by traffic congestion, lack of bike lanes or sidewalks, inability to take a bus or train to your destination? Well, Building America’s Future has released an updated version of their ‘I’m Stuck!’ app that allows people to directly send messages to their Congressional representatives – urging them to start funding the necessary improvements to make our communities mobile and safe. More from Streetsblog Capitol Hill:

Among the new features of their app redesign, BAF has added a way to tell Congress you need better bicycle infrastructure… According to BAF, the app has been downloaded 11,000 times and 3,500 messages have been sent to Congress. The old version didn’t let them track how many were complaining about sitting in traffic versus how many were complaining about inferior transit. And as we mentioned last time, you’ll have to customize your message if you want to make sure Congress knows that you’re not asking for more car lanes but rather a transit line that would get you off the road altogether. And remember, distracted driving rules apply.

Minneapolis moving forward with two, possibly three streetcar lines

A recent study found that while Metro does more with less than 11 peer cities, it woefully lags behind the rest when it comes to the amount and diversity of its service. In fact, Cincinnati was one of only four regions studied without any rail transit, and was the largest of those four. One of the peer cities studied is Minneapolis, which already has light rail and commuter rail in addition to its bus service, and now is moving forward with two, possibly three modern streetcar lines. More from the Star Tribune:

The transportation and public works committee gave the green light to move forward with an environmental review and “pre-project development activities” on the proposed $200 million, 3.4-mile Nicollet Avenue streetcar line. They simultaneously approved moving forward with a jointly funded alternatives analysis to study the possibility of building streetcars along West Broadway in North Minneapolis…Planning for a third transit line – possibly streetcars – is also underway for the Midtown Corridor. That process is being led by the Metropolitan Council.

What transportation lesson is there to learn from Salt Lake City?

I visited Utah earlier this year to see what they were doing with their transit systems, and was stunned to see the amount of investment made in transportation infrastructure. The Salt Lake City region boasts new highways, commuter rail, light rail and streetcars, bike share, bus improvements and inter-city passenger and freight rail enhancements. But how is this possible in one of the most conservative cities and states in the U.S.? Well it’s simple; they have increased taxes and relied on the business community to sell those tax increases to the public. When and if the business community in Cincinnati will ever step up and do the same is a great question to ask. More from the Salt Lake Tribune:

McAdams noted that the approach of selling transportation as a way to improve the economy helped build support needed for the Utah Transit Authority to just complete adding 70 miles of new rail lines two years early and under budget, and for such highway projects as using local money to rebuild Interstate 15 in Utah County.

McAdams noted that state and regional planners for highways and mass transit in Utah recently issued a unified plan for projects needed through 2040. The Utah Foundation issued a subsequent report saying current taxes would fall $11.3 billion short over 30 years to fund priority projects identified in that unified plan…Utah business and civic leaders have used such data to persuade the Legislature this year to study how and whether to raise taxes to fund projects in the 2040 plan. For example, its Transportation Interim Committee is scheduled Wednesday to discuss potentially raising gasoline taxes to meet some of the needs.

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.