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News Politics Transportation

Metro officials balance 2011 budget, spare riders fare increases and service cuts

Metro officials have announced that fares will not rise, and service will not be reduced in 2011.  The news comes as the transit agency faces declining ridership, and many feared that more fare increases or service cuts would be on the way.

In August, Metro restored service to a portion of Lower Price Hill that had previously fallen victim to an earlier round of service cuts.  Now, the transit agency says that they have been able to balance their upcoming $86.5 million budget thanks to newly announced funding from the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) that is programmed to help with capital costs.

“Currently, Metro’s 2011 budget is balanced by using capital funding to help pay for operating expenses,” said Thomas Hock, Interim CEO & General Manager of Metro.  “The new funding from ODOT will allow us to shift those capital dollars back to their intended use for critical capital projects, with no negative impact on service.”

The $4M funding allocation from ODOT came through the department’s 21st Century Transit Partnerships for Ohio’s Next Generation which distributed $50 million in 2011 to transit systems across the state.

Metro officials warn that even though the 2011 budget appears to be in order, that future fares and service structures will continue to face pressure.  Leadership says that while fares have stabilized, insufficient funds exist for capital projects like the replacement of buses beyond their 12-year useful life.

“We have examined every expense and tightened spending for the coming year to preserve service for our customers and keep fares at their current level,” Hock explained.

The proposed 2011 budget will go before Cincinnati’s City Council who would provide approximately 45 percent of Metro’s 2011 budget through the city’s earnings tax revenue.

The One for Fun:
Metro officials have also announced that Hollywood Casino Lawrenceburg will sponsor the new Route 1 bus service.  The partnership will include naming rights to the route in addition to typical bus advertising including promotions for Hollywood Casino on the back of each of the four, 30-foot hybrid buses on the route.

“As a tax-funded organization, this type of partnership is important to help Metro better serve the community,” said Dave Etienne, Metro’s Marketing Director.  Meanwhile, leaders at Hollywood Casino see the partnership as one that will help benefit their bottom line.

“As part of the Cincinnati business community, Hollywood sees this partnership with Metro as an opportunity to connect residents and visitors to some of Cincinnati’s best attractions,” said Tony Rodio, Hollywood Casino Lawrenceburg General Manager.  “We’re among the top attractions in the metropolitan region, so we realize the importance of just getting people out there, actively supporting the businesses that are there for them – this effort achieves that goal – and through a simple bus ride.”

Categories
News Politics Transportation

Ohio transit agencies awarded $20.7M for system upgrades

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced $776 million for urban and rural transit providers in 45 states. The money is intended to help bring buses, bus facilities, and other related equipment into a “state of good repair.” The grant money will reportedly support 152 projects across the country.

Ohio’s Department of Transportation (DOT) received $10 million to allocate towards transit vehicle replacement, and another $3.5 million to perform rehabilitation of transit facilities and equipment around the state. Akron’s Metro bus agency received $3 million, and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority received $4.2 million.

“Safety is our highest priority, and it goes hand-in-hand with making sure our transit systems are in the best working condition possible,” Secretary LaHood stated on Monday. “The millions of people who depend on transit each day to get to work, to school or to the doctor expect a safe and comfortable ride.”

No money was awarded to Cincinnati-area transit agencies, although Metro officials say that they are working with the state to hopefully receive some of that money.

The money could not be more needed according to transit officials who state that more than 40 percent of the nation’s buses are currently in poor to marginal condition. According to the National State of Good Repair Assessment Study released in June 2010, the $776 million included in this announcement will not come close to funding the estimated $78 billion worth of repairs needed to bring the nation’s rail and bus transit systems into a state of good repair.

In Cincinnati, Metro officials say that money is always needed to replace buses in their fleet as they reach the end of their 12-year life cycle.  Through this program, the agency had requested funding to replace the system’s nearly 20-year-old farebox technology.

“New fareboxes would allow us to not only improve the accuracy of our ridership data for planning purposes, but also introduce new fare media like day passes that could be purchased on the bus, stored value passes, and more,” Metro’s chief public affairs officer, Sallie Hilvers, told UrbanCincy.  “We have some federal grant funding now, but hope to secure the full amount in the coming year.”
Categories
Development News Transportation

Breaking Down Cincinnati’s Eastern Corridor Passenger Rail Plan

The Eastern Corridor project, a multi-modal highway and commuter rail plan for eastern Hamilton County, is back in the news. Two weeks ago Cincinnati City Council voted against endorsing a TIGER II grant application seeking funds for the plan’s 17-mile commuter rail component.

The local media predictably turned this event into another city-county dispute, and insinuated that the TIGER II grant might alone fund construction of the entire Milford commuter rail line, which in 2003 was estimated to cost $420 million. There is no possibility of this happening, as Milford commuter rail would need to be awarded approximately two-thirds of the entire $600 million sum to be dispersed nationwide by the TIGER II program.

The media also ignored the Eastern Corridor plan’s central feature – four miles of the Milford commuter rail line is planned to be built parallel to a new $500 million U.S. 32 expressway between Red Bank Road and a point east of Newtown. The 1990’s cost estimate for Milford commuter rail included the savings associated with building a combined highway and rail project, including a new shared eight-lane bridge over the Little Miami River. The cost of building the commuter line first without provision for the future highway has not been studied.

The Oasis Line
Between downtown Cincinnati and the proposed eight-lane bridge over the Little Miami River, the Milford commuter rail is planned to operate on an eight-mile stretch of track paralleling the Ohio River known as the “Oasis Line.” In the late 1980’s the L&N Bridge (now the Purple People Bridge) was closed to freight rail traffic, and thus ended the operation of large trains along the Oasis Line. Since that time, traffic has been limited to a handful of freight cars per week, and the Cincinnati Dinner Train on weekends.

At first glance it would appear that implementation of commuter rail service on the Oasis Line should require nothing more than the purchase of commuter trains and the construction of a connection between the end of active tracks and the Riverfront Transit Center. Unfortunately, the poor condition of the existing track limits traffic to a maximum twelve miles per hour, meaning all eight miles between the Montgomery Inn Boathouse and Red Bank Road must be rebuilt. It is also probable that the Riverfront Transit Center connection must be built at least partially through Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point. All of this new track must be heavy freight railroad track, not the smaller and less expensive track used by light rail trains and modern streetcars.

Even after this needed investment in new track, grade crossings will remain at a half-dozen locations along Riverside Drive and in Columbia Tusculum, where perfunctory horn blasts will disturb those residing in new condos along Riverside Drive, longtime residents atop Mt. Adams and East Walnut Hills, and will surely be audible across the river in Bellevue and Dayton.

Poor Station Locations
Residents of Riverside Drive will be able to hear the Milford commuter rail trains, but most will not live within easy walking distance of the line’s stations. Of five stations proposed along the Oasis Line, only one, Delta Avenue in historic Columbia Tusculum, can be considered auspicious. By contrast, little existing ridership or future development exists around either the proposed Theodore Berry Park or the Cincinnati Waterworks (downhill from Torrence Parkway) stations. Ridership at the proposed Lunken Airport station will be minimal, and the Beechmont Avenue station will primarily serve as a bus transfer point.

On top of this minimal ridership, Riverside Drive is already served by Metro’s #28 bus. If Milford commuter rail is built, this bus will still have to operate due to the infrequent service and long distances between stations along the Oasis Line. It is also likely that Metro’s #28X, which serves Mariemont and Terrace Park en route to Milford, will have to continue operations as well.

An alternative proposal that called for streetcar or light rail service between downtown and Lunken Airport could eliminate the need for the #28 bus route, thus freeing up resources for bus service elsewhere. In this scenario significant savings would be achieved due to the considerably lower track costs for streetcars and light rail when compared to the freight railroad track currently proposed for the Milford commuter rail. Additionally, the vehicles are much quieter because they are electrically powered, labor costs are halved because they require just one driver, and more stops could be placed at much closer intervals.

High Operations Costs
No funding source has been identified to cover the outrageous annual operating costs for Milford commuter rail. In 2004 its annual operations were estimated to be $18.9 million — a sum similar to the estimated annual operating cost of the proposed 250-mile 3C Corridor passenger rail service between Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland.

The cause of these exorbitant operating costs is an alarming combination of mediocre ridership and high labor costs. A 2002 report projected approximately 6,000 weekday trips (3,000 commuters) along the Oasis Line at full build-out. For comparison, this ridership figure is roughly equivalent to Metro’s most popular bus routes. At the same time, the FTA requires a crew of two onboard all diesel commuter trains that operate on freight tracks, even for the small Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) planned for the Eastern Corridor, due to safety regulations.

By comparison, the Cincinnati Streetcar as presently planned will cost approximately $128 million to construct, require $3 million per year to operate, and will attract similar or higher daily ridership with 15 fewer route miles of track. Last month, city officials were notified that the Cincinnati Streetcar was awarded a $25 million Urban Circulator grant. If an identical amount were hypothetically awarded to the Eastern Corridor project through TIGER II, it would cover so little of the much more expensive Milford commuter rail that no construction would even be able to take place. Meanwhile, an additional $25 million put towards the Cincinnati Streetcar could extend the line into Avondale or Walnut Hills immediately. This means a potential grant for the Milford commuter rail might sit in the county treasury for a decade or more, or through tricky accounting be integrated into the Eastern Corridor project’s highway funding.

The Wasson Line
An alternative rail route to eastern Hamilton County involves use of the Wasson Line, which joins the Oasis Line near Red Bank Road but travels a very different path between that point and downtown Cincinnati. This route is eight miles – the exact same distance as the Oasis Line – but promises much higher ridership and much lower operational costs.

Since all freight operations ceased on the Wasson Line in 2009, electric light rail vehicles staffed by a single driver can be used at considerable cost savings over diesel commuter trains needed on the Oasis Line. Proposed station locations at Xavier University, Montgomery Road, Edwards Road, and Paxton Avenue each promise higher initial ridership — in 2002 the Wasson Line was estimated to attract 20,000 daily riders, or triple that of Milford commuter rail.

Also different from the Oasis Line, redevelopment potential exists around all of the stations locations along the Wasson Line, but especially the 25-acre parallelogram-shaped parcel recently assembled by Xavier University between its campus and Montgomery Road. The abandoned Wasson Road Railroad bisects this property and converges with the similarly abandoned CL&N railroad at the present edge of Xavier’s campus. The particular junction played a major role in the 2002 MetroMoves regional rail plan due to the convergence of several regional lines on their way into downtown along shared Gilbert Avenue tracks.

The Edward Road station is another location superior to anything on the Oasis Line. It is located within walking distance of Hyde Park Square and the majority of the neighborhood’s population. The station would be placed adjacent to, or across the street from, Rookwood Commons shopping center, and just a three-minute walk from the undeveloped Rookwood Exchange site north of Edmondson Road.

The Wasson Line has decisive cost-benefit advantages over the Oasis Line, but it obviously cannot function without a connection between Xavier University and downtown. After completion of the Cincinnati Streetcar, construction of a light rail connection between these points should be a top priority. This section alone promises the highest per-mile transit ridership in the metro area, and reaching Xavier University allows construction of three light rail branches, on existing railroad right-of-way, as funds permit.

Regional Priorities
It is unclear why construction of the Eastern Corridor project is any kind of priority. Much of the expense will be borne by Hamilton County, but with parts of the highway and rail line traveling over the undevelopable Little Miami River flood plain, the new expressway and perhaps even the rail line will act to encourage sprawl in Clermont County. Even the terminal station for the Milford commuter rail will not be in Milford’s town center, where it would be within walking distance of several hundred residents, but rather two miles away at Milford Parkway, home to Wal-Mart, Target, and chain sports bars.

Anti-rail forces are fond of saying that rail advocates will support anything that runs on rails. But advocates of better public transportation know that funds for rail projects are scarce and must be applied where the best cost-benefit exists. Moreover, the best transit mode must be chosen for each route. In the case of inner-city rail to Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs, diesel commuter rail along the Oasis Line is not the best solution, but rather, light rail service along the Wasson Line is.

Categories
News Politics Transportation

Letting Cincinnatians Down

I know I promised no new posts for awhile, but the moment has struck me with a series of unfortunate events from organizations and people who are there to represent the interests of Cincinnatians.

The local Green Party, local chapter of the NAACP, and Green Township officials continue to let us down. What do these unlikely bedfellows have in common? They all seem to have a vested interest against the improvement of Cincinnati’s transit system beyond that of roadways.

The Green Party most notably led by Justin Jeffre locally has an unusual opposition to the ongoing efforts to bring a modern streetcar system to Cincinnati. Their unusual tactics have included referring to this modern streetcar proposal as a “choo choo train” and likening a streetcar’s functionality and benefits to that of an electric bus. For their efforts, as perplexing as they may be, are still just words and rank them the lowest of the three offenders mentioned here.

Next up is the local chapter of the NAACP. The NAACP has a stated mission of, “ensuring the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.” Seems reasonable enough to me, and you would think an initiative that would improve transit options and service in the center city while also creating many permanent and temporary jobs would be something that the local chapter of the NAACP would be on board with right? Wrong.

The NAACP has made the denying of improved transit for Cincinnatians one of their top 3 priorities for 2009. They have passed the measure internally and have agreed to collect signatures to have the issue put on the November ballot. What is most troubling about this is that they can not put the legislative measure itself on the ballot (as it is not increasing taxes or changing law). Instead they are putting in on the ballot as a Charter amendment.

So if the local chapter of the NAACP were to achieve success they would alter the City’s Charter to prohibit streetcars altogether. That means that even if some big company wanted to come in and fund a streetcar system with 100% of their own money they would not be able to do so as it would occur within the City’s right-of-way. I’m curious to look at the language even more closely to see if it would also include something to prohibit light rail or high-speed rail efforts that would also benefit Cincinnatians and their city.

Finally you have Green Township officials. Forget the fact that the State Representatives from this westside community have spoken out against virtually every single rail initiative that this region has seen. We’ll just look at buses – something that several townships and suburban areas, like Anderson and West Chester townships, have learned to embrace over the years.

Green Township is a community with close to 60,000 residents. To its west is the rural portions of Western Hamilton County. To its east and south are the first ring suburbs of Cincinnati including Cheviot, Westwood, and Price Hill. There is little to no bus service for this massive township and Township Trustees are working on getting rid of what is currently there.

During the Legacy Place rezoning effort Township Trustees worked to block Metro from serving the proposed retail development. Their rationale was that they didn’t want to see the same thing happen to Legacy Place (no mentioned tenants) that happened to Western Hills Plaza (home to stores like Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Old Navy, Bath & Body Works, Sears, and Staples) down the road. Ignoring the obvious racial undertones and prejudice of that statement I’ll assume that they don’t want to see any massive reinvestment in Legacy Place when it too loses its newness.

More recently Green Township officials have been lobbying Metro to remove some or eliminate all of the #33 bus route that runs through the township. With recent Metro budget constraints they figured why continue the fight and decided to cut a portion of the #33 route – one of the only routes in the township – at the township’s request.

Contact these organizations and people and let them know how disappointed you are with their actions. Let them know how out of touch their actions are with their constituencies. And most importantly let them know how important transit options are to you.

Email
Green Township Trustees | Cincinnati NAACP | SW Ohio Green Party

Categories
Business News Transportation

Ridership down on Metro

It is with unfortunate news that Cincinnati’s Metro has reported a 4.3% drop in ridership from January-September 2007 versus the same time frame in 2008, despite higher gasoline prices. This is in sharp contrast to the The American Public Transportation Association’s figures that present a large gain for the vast majority of the mass transit networks nationwide.

Of course, what the Cincinnati Enquirer article fails to mention, is that long-distance commuting is up 18% in October compared with last year. A sizable increase was also reported in August, but both did not make the Enquirer’s radar.

What’s also missing is the University of Cincinnati’s partnership with Metro that has been overwhelmingly successful. Aimed at easing notoriously painful traffic congestion in the Uptown locale, and reduce the need for parking, nearly 2,000 University of Cincinnati students and faculty members take advantage of the free rides that is funded by the university’s Student Government. Nine routes are currently enrolled in the program, and all that is required is a student identification card.

It should be noted that the Cincinnati Enquirer should not be used as a point-of-reference for these local developments. When an article is a cut-and-paste job with a clear bias, and a lack of moderation in their user comments section, one has to wonder what the Enquirer’s real priorities are. Let’s hope that they report on the uptick in ridership by Metro when the figures are released for December 2008.