9 things we've learned from the streetcar's first six months

CINCINNATI -- As winter transitions to spring, marked most famously by the Reds' home opener, Cincinnati's streetcar is still operating in the black, although ridership fell slightly from February into March.

Those were just two on the lengthy list of updates officials with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority -- which oversees streetcar operations -- delivered to Cincinnati City Council's transportation committee Tuesday afternoon, examining data from the streetcar's first six months, through February 28.

February saw the streetcar's first increase in monthly ridership since its launch in September, but March saw about 2,000 fewer rides. SORTA Director of Rail Services Paul Grether attributed the dip to four days of construction on the streetcar tracks, which shut down service in the Central Business District for the duration of the work.

RELATED: City aiming for streetcar track repair before Opening Day
IN DEPTH: Streetcar shutdown for concrete repair a unique case

Grether and his team, along with the city administration, brought the committee up to speed on a number of issues recently facing the streetcar. Here are nine takeaways from the streetcar's first six months:

1. Still in the black

Assistant City Manager John Juech first addressed the committee Tuesday to inform them that, according to year-one projections, the streetcar remains roughly $160,000 in the black.

Juech's numbers outline what officials estimated the streetcar's more than a dozen revenue streams would produce during its first year, as well as projections on how much revenue should have been generated by this point in the streetcar's life span.

Revenue sources falling short include:

  • Fare boxes ($2,011)
  • Sponsorships, naming rights and advertising ($1,661)
  • Tax incentives ($5,474)
  • SORTA direct services ($58,365)

Year-to-date variances compared to year-to-date budget estimates.

SORTA direct services refers to expenses incurred by streetcar operations.

Nevertheless, the streetcar project remains under budget by $158,304, year-to-date, according to Juech's report.

2. March construction meant a dip in ridership

Until February, the streetcar only saw declines in ridership since its launch in September.

The uptick was short-lived, though, with ridership going from 36,681 trips taken in February compared to 34,679 in March. 

Grether attributed the drop to four days of lost service throughout the streetcar's Downtown loop, which makes up roughly half of the 3.6-mile route. The service interruption was the result of construction work on the streetcar track's concrete flooring on Walnut Street near Ninth and Court streets.

Cincinnati's Department of Transportation and Engineering Director Michael Moore previously told WCPO that this was a unique case. Moore said, unlike the re-pouring required for this repair, regular due diligence concrete upkeep "can be done most anytime." 

3. Riders are paying

Fare revenue makes up about $300,000 of the streetcar's $4 million annual budget -- a small drop in the bucket.

That said, Grether made sure to mention Tuesday that SORTA estimates more than 99 percent of streetcar riders checked have paid their fare. It is industry practice to inspect roughly 25 percent of riders for fare compliance, Grether said.

"For a new system, that's actually quite remarkable," Grether said.

Transdev -- the firm SORTA contracted to operate and maintain the streetcar -- subcontracted fare inspection and enforcement to Cincinnati police.

By the city's count, as of Feb. 28 the streetcar had accumulated nearly $320,000 in fare revenue, including commemorative passes sold before the streetcar's launch and private charter service.

This came as a surprise to some committee members, who reported hearing anecdotes suggesting no one has been checking streetcar riders for fares.

"I know you're checking fares, but we continue to get blow back saying, 'No one's checking the fares on this, and people are riding for free,'" said committee member Kevin Flynn.

Grether responded: "There is zero tolerance for non-payment of fare. That being said, there are issues sometimes when folks are riding for the first time and are still learning to use the system, we have ways of interacting with folks and making sure we're not penalizing someone for legitimately not knowing how to use the system.

"However, and there are ways of knowing this, if there is willful non-payment of fare, the likelihood is that individual is going to get caught."

4. Still a couple minutes slow

One of the streetcar's most daunting challenges so far has been keeping up with its scheduled arrival times at each stop. According to its contract with the city, Transdev is required to maintain 12-minute headways on weekdays and 15-minute headways on weekends.

A headway refers to the duration of time between a streetcar's departure and the next streetcar's arrival.

But Grether told the committee that the weekday average headway was just above 13 minutes, while the weekend headway is roughly 17 minutes.

Traffic congestion contributes a lot to the delays, leaders agree, especially along Walnut Street between Downtown and The Banks.

READ MORE: Is there something about Walnut St. causing streetcar crashes?

City Council last fall approved a measure that called for a traffic signal study, to investigate the signals' timing and their impact on traffic congestion. It will be the city's first close look at signal timing in more than 20 years.

"We're in a mixed-traffic environment. You've got rush hour traffic, people coming out of parking garages, you have all sorts of things that happen," Juech said.

5. Watch out for lunchtime/evening rush

SORTA is developing a system to provide hourly and stop-by-stop analysis of streetcar ridership, but in the meantime officials have been able to identify what times of day collisions or other incidents are most likely to occur, and where they happen most.

Since its launch in September, the streetcar has been involved in 16 incidents in which the streetcar has made contact with another vehicle or pedestrian, or had to be evacuated for some reason.

Grether said the data show that such incidents are most likely to occur between noon-1 p.m. and 4-5 p.m.

Nearly 80 percent of those incidents involved other vehicles, while about 20 percent involved a pedestrian, Grether said.

Grether identified Walnut Street at Fourth and Fifth streets, Race Street at 12th and Elder, and Main Street at Fifth Street as hotspots for such incidents.

6. Monthly pass might not just be for summer

SORTA last month announced it will run a promotion from June through August offering a monthly pass option for streetcar riders.

Spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers told the committee that transit officials are looking into offering a similar promotion for the fall months, as well, in anticipation of the numerous events that take place at The Banks, Downtown and in Over-the-Rhine during that time of year.

September and October 2016 remain the streetcar's heaviest ridership months to date.

Hilvers said the monthly pass will cost $50 per month, and riders can purchase passes for all three months at once.

The streetcar will offer monthly passes as part of a three-month summer promotion. (Provided/SORTA)

The $50 cost got some pushback from committee members, though, who worried it would deter people from using the pass.

"I'm worried not even someone who works Downtown would ride the streetcar 25 times a month," Flynn said. He added that at $2 for a day pass it would take 25 trips a month to make the monthly pass worth the price.

Committee member Yvette Simpson agreed, suggesting $25 would be more reasonable.

"It's totally up to the city," Hilvers said, but not without warning that a decision would need to be made soon if council wants a different price for the monthly pass.

SORTA plans to make the monthly passes available some time in May, Hilvers said.

The monthly pass can only be offered as part of a promotion due to Federal Transit Administration regulations. Because Cincinnati's streetcar receives FTA funding, a city report on operations and ridership is required for the FTA to approve a fare schedule change that would add a monthly pass option. Promotional offers are exempt from this requirement.

7. Fare evasion costs more than blocking tracks?

While not exactly new information, one committee member Tuesday expressed surprise that the fine for not paying to ride the streetcar -- $100 initially, increasing with each offense -- is higher than the fine for blocking the streetcar tracks, $50 per offense.

Vice Mayor David Mann called it "ironic."

"We seem to have our priorites misplaced," he said.

Committee member Chris Seelbach last week introduced a measure that would increase the fine for blocking the streetcar tracks up to $100, but he then moved to indefinitely postpone a vote when it became clear it would not have the support needed to pass.

8. Parking revenue remains 'strong'

Juech told the committee that revenue from parking meters throughout Over-the-Rhine -- a chief source of revenue for the streetcar -- is "strong."

According to the data he provided the committee, the streetcar's first year of operations relies on $1.5 million in parking revenue. The year-to-date estimate calls for $750,000 in parking revenue to fund the project. How much has actually been allocated to the streetcar? $750,000, Juech reported.

9. Late/Missed trips still persist

While the average trip is only a couple minutes behind schedule, SORTA's data indicate that late and missed trips remain a persistent struggle for the streetcar.

SORTA data show a slow increase in late and missed streetcar trips. (Provided/SORTA)

SORTA defines a "late trip" as a trip that is operated more than five minutes behind schedule, and a "missed trip" is the difference between trips scheduled per day versus how many actually occur. Late operation is one factor contributing to missed trips, Grether said.

Grether said his team will be moving away from tracking late and missed trips in favor of tracking average headways in the coming months.

While data for March is all still preliminary, it is worth pointing out that SORTA's data show a drastic decrease in late trips between February and March, although missed trips continued to grow.

"March will forever be marked with an asterisk," Grether said, due to the streetcar's four-day shutdown for construction Downtown.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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