Episode #49: Ideas to Copy

Cincy Bus Transit MapOn the 49th episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, Travis, Jocelyn, Jake, and Randy take a listener suggestion and come up with a list of ideas that Cincinnati should copy from other cities. We touch on the ideas like introducing ultra-high speed internet access, completely re-drawing the city’s bus route map, merging smaller municipalities together to gain efficiency, introducing an urban service boundary, and finding innovative ways to generate electricity. In a future episode, we’ll follow up with even more ideas that Cincinnati should consider copying.

Metro Rolling Out Series of Transit Enhancements for Peeble’s Corner District

As part of Metro’s system-wide upgrades, transit officials have announced a new project to upgrade stations and services in Walnut Hills.

The first part of these enhancements includes the availability of Metro’s monthly passes and regional stored-value cards, which were available as of last week, at the customer service counter at the Walnut Hills Kroger on E. McMillan Avenue.

“At Kroger, we are always seeking ways to offer conveniences to our customers,” explained Sarah Raney, Walnut Hills Kroger Store Manager. “The Walnut Hills Kroger is happy to partner with Metro to sell bus passes to our customers who regularly use them.”

In addition to many of the store’s customers, management also says that many of the store’s employees use Metro bus service to get to and from work on a daily basis.

According to Brandy Jones, Public Relations Manager at Metro, this is the first such partnership for the region’s largest transit operator, but could be the first of more to come. Jones says that this is a test to see how it works, and that additional partnerships with Kroger and other retailers may be explored.

The move is part of a larger goal to increase ridership system-wide. Other recent improvements have included the construction of the Uptown Transit District and Glenway Crossing Transit Center, and the establishment of the Montgomery Road Metro*Plus route and several new crosstown routes.

Metro officials tout the Walnut Hills Transit Enhancement Project as enhancing service for one of their busiest neighborhoods. According to ridership data, approximately 208,000 rides were provided to the historic neighborhood in 2014. Once complete in 2016, the enhancement project will introduce new sheltered boarding areas, improved lighting, sidewalk and landscape improvements, electronic real-time arrival screens and some other more modest improvements at a total of seven stations in the Peeble’s Corner area.

“Metro is invested in the Walnut Hills community,” Dwight Ferrell, Metro CEO & General Manager, stated in a prepared release. “We’re excited that the Walnut Hills Kroger has become the first major retailer in the region to sell Metro bus passes. This new partnership will help us better serve our mutual customers.”

The commitment from Metro is just the latest in a string of positive announcements from the surrounding neighborhoods, but community leaders are hoping to provide even more transportation choices, such as Cincy Red Bike, in the future as well. But as for now, neighborhood leaders are particularly bullish on the impacts the Walnut Hills Transit Enhancement Project will have on the E. McMillan Corridor.

“We think this is going to be a game changer,” Kevin Wright, Executive Director of Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, explained to UrbanCincy. “Peeble’s Corner has always been one of the largest transfer points in the city and we think ridership will only grow as we add more density to the corridor.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Metro provides approximately 2.8 million rides to the Walnut Hills area, while the number of rides is actually 208,000.

System Designs Unveiled, Operating Agreement Reached for Cincinnati Streetcar

Officials with the City of Cincinnati and Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) made several major announcements last week pertaining to the rollout of the Cincinnati Streetcar system.

While the design of the rolling stock and the system’s color scheme were revealed more than a year ago, the official branding for the new mode of transit for the Cincinnati region had not. SORTA officials say that the branding will be utilized all throughout the system including its fare cards, ticketing machines, uniforms, wayfinding, brochures, website and social media, and, of course, the trains and their stations.

The branding scheme was put together by Kolar Design, whose offices are located in the Eighth Street Design District just two blocks from the nearest streetcar stop, after competing with more than 100 other firms interested in the opportunity to developing the design scheme.

Project officials say that the $25,000 cost for the branding effort was paid for through Federal funds.

Founders Club Card Sales
At the same time, SORTA and City officials announced the availability of 1,500 Founders Club Cards. The sale of the cards, officials said, would help raise some initial funds to be used to help offset initial operating expenses.

Project officials have informed UrbanCincy that approximately half of the 1,500 cards were sold within the first 24 hours of going on sale; and that more than 1,000 had been sold by Friday. A limited number of Founders Club Cards are still available for purchase at the Second Floor Cashier’s Office at City Hall, Metro’s sales office in the Mercantile Arcade across from Government Square, and online at Metro’s website.

There are three card options available. The first goes for $25 and allows for unlimited rides for the first 15 days of service, which is currently pegged for 2016. The second and third options go for $50 and $100, and allow for unlimited rides for the first 30 and 60 days, respectively.

The commemorative metal cards and matching metal cases were seen by some as one of the first ways for Cincinnati Streetcar supporters to show their support. Having experienced strong sales thus far, it seems as Metro’s strategy may prove to be a success.

“This is one of the first tangible opportunities streetcar enthusiasts can show their support,” said City Councilwoman Amy Murray (R), Transportation Committee Chair. “This is a great idea that Metro has developed to generate excitement. I think many will appreciate the privilege of being a Founding Club Member with this commemorative card.”

Operating Agreement Finalized
Perhaps lost amid the other news was the signing of an official operating agreement. Under the current structure, the City of Cincinnati is building the system, and is its owner, but will contract out its operations to SORTA.

The Cincinnati Streetcar Operating & Maintenance Agreement first came out of Murray’s Transportation Committee and was approved 7-2 by City Council in early November. It calls for expanded on-street parking enforcement in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine until 9pm, an increase in parking rates in those two neighborhoods, and a set streetcar fare of $1 for two hours.

The agreement also utilizes an innovative technique that would lower property tax abatements 7.5%. This is an important component of the agreement as it addresses a longstanding call from opponents for those benefiting from real estate valuation increases to cover more of the costs of modern streetcar system. It also eliminates the need to utilize the Haile Foundation’s $9 million pledge, and would instead only tap into those funds in a worst-case scenario.

Project officials estimate that the system will cost approximately $3.8 to $4.2 million annually to operate, and that those costs would be covered by $1.5 million in additional on-street parking revenue in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, $1.3 million from fares and advertising, and an estimated $2 million annually from the tax abatement reductions.

“This is the most innovative plan I’ve seen in the United States,” stated John Schneider, noted transit advocate and real estate developer, at the time of City Council’s approval in November.

The SORTA Board approved the agreement last week and touted the benefits of having operations of the Cincinnati Streetcar be handled through Metro, which also runs the region’s largest bus service.

In addition to the critical financing elements of the agreement, it also delineates various responsibilities once service goes into effect. To that end, the City of Cincinnati will be in charge of maintaining traffic signals, clearing blockages from the streetcar path, cooperation on utility interfaces, safety and security; while SORTA will be responsible for operating the system, maintaining vehicles and facilities, fare collection provision and maintenance, marketing and advertising sales.

Construction on the $148 million first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar continues to progress, with most track work in Over-the-Rhine now complete and track work now progressing through the Central Business District. Current time frames call for operations to begin in September 2016.

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.

Can Metro, Megabus Come to Terms on Moving the Intercity Bus Operator Into the Riverfront Transit Center?

Following the announcement last week that Megabus would relocate its downtown Cincinnati stop to a parking lot at 691 Gest Street in Queensgate, there has been a new round of public calls for the intercity bus operator to move its stop into the underutilized Riverfront Transit Center.

The move is just the latest in a series of moves after Megabus was forced out of its original stop at Fourth and Race due to construction taking place at Mabley Place, and complaints from neighbors about noise and loitering. Those complaints have since plagued Megabus as it has tried to find a new stop somewhere in the center city.

Perhaps the most troublesome complaint has been allegations of public urination at Megabus stops by their riders. As a result, city leaders have been looking for a more permanent stop location that includes public restrooms. This has led to a number of people to suggest Findlay Market and the Horseshoe Casino, near the existing Greyhound station, as possible locations.

But through all of this there appears to be a growing sentiment that the Riverfront Transit Center be used not only to accommodate Megabus, but all intercity bus operators serving Cincinnati.

“There is, of course, plenty of parking available, and riders can wait in a safe and secure enclosed area, out of the elements and with restrooms available,” stated Derek Bauman, urban development consultant and chairman of Cincinnatians for Progress. “Megabus will benefit by finally having a permanent home that was built for just this purpose.”

In addition to there being plenty of parking nearby, the Riverfront Transit Center, designed to accommodate up to 500 buses and 20,000 passengers per hour, also has plenty of capacity.

Beyond Megabus, there may be an even greater upside for other operators, like Greyhound and Barons Bus, to relocate into the Riverfront Transit Center.

“Greyhound could benefit by moving from and selling its current location near the casino, which would then be ripe for development as a hotel or other higher use. This would also save the company millions in capital dollars to fund needed upgrades and rehab of the current facility.”

As has been noted by Vice Mayor David Mann (D), someone who has served as a leader on trying to find a solution to this problem, there are difficulties with getting Megabus and others into the transit center neatly tucked beneath Second Street.

The Riverfront Transit Center is technically owned by the City of Cincinnati and operated by Metro, which uses the facility Metro*Plus layover, special events and leases some of its east and west aprons for parking. According to transit agency officials, these operations generate approximately $480,000 in annual revenue and net roughly $170,000 in annual profit for Metro.

Therefore, any new operators or changes to this structure would not only present logistical issues, but also potentially negatively affect Metro’s finances unless new revenues are collected – something Megabus has not been particularly keen of thus far.

“It’s our understanding that Megabus pays a fee to share transit facilities in other cities,” Sallie Hilvers, Metro’s Executive Director of Communications, told UrbanCincy. “As a tax-supported public service, Metro would need to recover the increased costs related to maintenance, utilities, security, etc. from Megabus, which is a for-profit company.”

Hilvers also stated that while Metro is open to the idea, that there would also be some legal and regulatory issues that would also need to be addressed.

Nevertheless, the Riverfront Transit Center seems to be the logical place to consolidate intercity bus operators. The facility is enclosed, includes bathrooms, waiting areas, is centrally located and within close proximity to other transportation services such as Government Square, Cincinnati Streetcar and Cincy Red Bike.

“Welcoming visitors to Cincinnati at the RTC at The Banks showcases our city and is much more welcoming than a random street corner in Queensgate outside of downtown,” Bauman emphasized. “This just makes sense, it’s as simple as that. Everyone involved should continue do whatever is necessary to come to an agreement and make it happen.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: Cincinnati Vice Mayor David Mann (D) did not respond to UrbanCincy‘s request for comment on this story.