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.
One of the great aspects of urban life is the ability to meet new people and be exposed to diverse ideas you have not encountered before. Many of us, however, seem to take this fact for granted, and do not often engage in conversations with neighbors or other people we encounter throughout the city.
The creators of Cincy Stories, a new event series, hope to change exactly that. The quarterly event aims to bring people together to share stories personal from their lives.
“Cincy Stories is about intimately connecting to our neighbors and just sharing stories like people do in their living rooms or around their dining room tables,” event co-founder Shawn Braley told UrbanCincy.
The first Cincy Stories will feature three speakers: Cincinnati City Council Member Chris Seelbach, OTR Community Council President Ryan Messer, and mixologist-entrepreneur Molly Wellmann. It will be held on Tuesday, February 3 at 7pm in the Sword Room at MOTR Pub. The event is free and open to anyone who would like to come and listen.
The rate of sales is exceeding expectations, and many believe the remaining allotment will be sold within the next few days. In fact, $25 cards have already been taken off of Metro’s website, with a very limited number remaining at City Hall and Metro’s sales office.
Streetcar supporters are pointing to this as clear evidence of the excitement surrounding the project, especially given that those buying the cards will not be able to use them until the system goes into operation in September 2016.
“Selling $72,000 worth of fare cards for a starter line that’s nearly two years from being operational shows the level of support and enthusiasm for the Cincinnati Streetcar to finally be up and running,” Derek Bauman, SW Ohio Director for All Aboard Ohio, told UrbanCincy. “This is the definition of pent up demand.”
Of course, there is also the financial benefit. Selling all 1,500 of the cards will net Metro $72,000 in fare revenue nearly two years before the Cincinnati Streetcar goes into operation.
The news comes as Believe in Cincinnati, the grassroots coalition that formed a year ago to save the project from cancellation, has organized a press conference to announce a broad new coalition of organizations and community leaders urging for the expansion of the streetcar system to Uptown.
“While we must celebrate the success we have had over the past year with construction of tracks in the OTR loop nearing completion and the downtown loop well underway, we must also be looking forward,” explained Ryan Messer, Founder of Believe in Cincinnati.
“As of today, we still do not have an official plan in place for our uptown expansion that will link downtown and OTR to the University of Cincinnati and the uptown neighborhoods,” Messer wrote in an email. “We are ready to ignite these conversations and be prepared to implement these plans into action.”
“Imagine what the impact will be when we connect Cincinnati’s core, with its 40,000 jobs and growing residential population, to the 30,000 jobs and 40,000 students in the uptown neighborhoods,” Bauman exclaimed. “This vision is as exciting as it will be transformative for the City of Cincinnati.”
The Believe in Cincinnati press conference will be held at the corner of Race and Elder Streets, near Findlay Market, and where track stub has been constructed for the accommodation of a future uptown extension. Organizers say the event will take place at 10am and will show off the new, expanded coalition of streetcar supporters urging for its expansion.
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.
In the latest twist of the ongoing Cincinnati Streetcar saga, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Administrator, Peter Rogoff, sent a piercing letter to Mayor John Cranley (D) and all nine members of City Council informing them that the FTA is planning to act quickly on what they perceive as a material breach of contract.
“The Cincinnati City Council passed eleven ordinances on December 4, 2013, that have the effect of suspending progress on the Cincinnati Streetcar Project, an unprecedented action to suspend a federally funded transit project while it is currently under construction and after the City committed approximately $116 million in expenditures and contractual agreements,” Rogoff wrote.
“The Council’s action is a material breach of the FTA Master Agreement and the separate Grant Agreements executed between FTA, the City, and the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority to fund the project. As such, I write to inform you that unless this action is reversed and I receive not later than midnight on December 19, 2013, unequivocal assurances that the City will proceed with the project to completion on the current FTA-approved schedule, FTA will immediately terminate all of its grant obligations for the project and initiate a debt collection action to recover money owed.”
Strong words. It is no wonder Mayor Cranley jumped out in front of the media early on Facebook Friday morning to spin the letter as a positive development for his administration.
But what it also means is that the City of Cincinnati must complete its third financial audit of the project, with KPMG, no later than that date and should make a decision FTA finds satisfactory in order to avoid the loss of $40 million from the Federal government and debt collection on another $5 million of Federal money already spent.
“The City understood FTA’s position before it decided to suspend the project,” Rogoff emphasized with regard to ongoing claims by some streetcar opponents, contrary to what FTA has directly told them, who believe the $45 million in Federal funding could be reprogrammed to other area transportation projects.
Those activities happened on Friday and continued to evolve over the weekend. Meanwhile, the group fighting Mayor Cranley on this matter held a press conference on the steps of City Hall Monday morning announcing the start of a petition drive that would place a Charter amendment forcing the administration to finish the project according to its contractual agreements.
Streetcar supporters will need to gather 5,970 signatures in order to have the Charter amendment placed on the ballot, but say they are striving to collect 12,000 within five days in order to send a message to City Hall. Should they get the necessary signatures, it would be placed on the ballot for voters within 60 to 120 days according to state law.
“We are confident that this [the city’s ongoing financial audit] will show that the cost to stop the streetcar is more than the cost to continue,” Ryan Messer, unofficial spokesman for the ‘We Believe in Cincinnati’ organization, told the crowd. “We hope at that point City Council will remove the pause button and hit the restart button, so we can continue to see the growth and development that has already come as a result of the Cincinnati Streetcar.”
At the same time, Mayor Cranley has gone on the record and stated that he would potentially veto any majority vote by City Council to restart construction and complete the project. Such a move would require the Charter amendment or a 6-3 super majority vote of City Council to override the mayor’s veto.
Following Monday’s press conference, the ‘We Believe in Cincinnati’ organizers say they will host a signature gathering training session tomorrow evening at First Lutheran Church at 1208 Race Street in Over-the-Rhine from 6pm to 8pm. Organizers say all are welcome to attend and that they expect hundreds to show up for what will be the first of a five-day blitz to collect thousands of signatures.
In order to get to the super majority vote, streetcar supporters need both Vice Mayor David Mann (D) and Councilman Kevin Flynn (C) to side with the four existing council members supporting the project. While both Mann and Flynn have stated, and campaigned on the fact, that they would consider the facts and figures before making a decision, both have shown indications that their minds may already be made up even before the latest audit is completed.
“I’m not against the streetcar because I’m against streetcars,” Flynn, who prior to being elected had been a prominent streetcar supporter, told The Enquirer on Monday. “I’m against it because I don’t think it makes economic sense for the city right now. I don’t think the numbers are going to come back supportive.”
Whether Flynn and Mann were sincere in saying that they would reasonably consider the facts and figures associated with taking “unprecedented action” to cancel a project already under construction, or not, is yet to be seen. But in either case it appears that streetcar supporters have a tough road ahead of them.