BLINK light festival could be a great chance for the Cincinnati streetcar to show off its potential

CINCINNATI -- It’s no secret: the Cincinnati Bell Connector has an image problem.

There is still a sizeable anti-streetcar faction. Ticketing headaches and low weekday ridership have it mired in controversy, and the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, the system’s overseer, just celebrated the streetcar’s first birthday with a change in management leadership.

Now, the streetcar might get a boost.

The city is abuzz for BLINK, the Lumenocity-inspired light festival that will soon transform Downtown and Over-the-Rhine into a sprawling, outdoor art gallery where people travel via streetcar.

The event, more than two years in the making, has united the city’s business, artistic and philanthropic communities. 

Tim Maloney, president of the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation, one of the event’s main partners, said BLINK is a chance to show off the city’s assets.

“We have great architecture. We’ve got beautiful topography, geography, our riverfront and our streetcar,” he said.

Handling the festival’s crowds will be one of the streetcar’s biggest tests since it opened last year, but it is also an opportunity to quiet critics and change the narrative.

Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, which is handling logistics and operations, expects around 500,000 participants, most of whom will ride or interact with the streetcar -- all of the installations are either along or near to its 3.6-mile loop.

“If we see the system slowing down either because of heavy ridership or because of traffic conditions or other factors, we’ll place additional cars into service to meet the demand,” said SORTA Director of Rail Services Paul Grether.

This trial by fire masks the other, more understated, public relations boon BLINK has gifted SORTA: re-framing the streetcar as an economic development tool.

According to John Schneider -- a former member of the city planning commission -- economic development has always been a major reason for building the system.

Planning for the festival predates the streetcar’s opening, but the guarantee of those tracks allowed the team to expand beyond Lumenocity and its Music Hall confines.

BLINK spans 20 blocks, from Findlay Market to the Banks.

“Not many people would walk that, not many people would drive, re-park their car,” Schneider said.

Laying streetcar tracks into the ground allowed the BLINK team to turn a single night of light projection into four nights of interactive art displays. Thousands of artists, both local and global, are working behind the scenes with ArtWorks, another event partner, to make this event happen.

ArtWorks CEO Tamara Harkavy said BLINK’s success depends heavily upon the streetcar. When the team visited other light festivals, it spent too much time traveling to each installation. For BLINK, the team wants a more seamless experience.

“The streetcar and the streetcar route probably is the key player in this whole event,” she said. “That connectivity and the scale of our city allows us to produce this event differently than any other city.” 

Grether said the decentralized nature of the festival should help regulate service. He believes the streetcar will be able to handle the crowds, but he wouldn’t prognosticate further.

“Whether or not it will be the highest ridership ever on the streetcar, I don’t know,” he said. “We really won’t know until after the fact.”

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