High streetcar ridership causing delays, tension between city and transit authority

CINCINNATI -- Supporters say it's a good problem to have, but high streetcar demand and some delays in service have generated tension between the city and the transit authority, less than a month after the system's launch.

And, contrary to what would seem to be true, more fare revenue won't be enough to pay for a service increase.

The latest chapter in Cincinnati's streetcar drama came Thursday, when the city issued a statement announcing they and the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority ordered TransDev, the company responsible for running the streetcar, to operate as many streetcar vehicles as necessary to meet ridership demands on weekdays and weekends.

The announcement followed a letter Monday from City Manager Harry Black to SORTA, which oversees streetcar operations. In the letter, Black expressed concern over longer-than-anticipated wait times along its route connecting Over-the-Rhine, Downtown and The Banks.

The city's contract with the transit authority mandates that the streetcar arrive at each of its 18 stops every 12 minutes during the week, and every 15 minutes on weekends.

It's a schedule that the streetcar has not been hitting, Black said. In his letter to SORTA CEO and General Manager Dwight Ferrell, Black admitted that September's launch was followed quickly by multiple, high-volume events in the area, including Oktoberfest and the Bengals' home opener at Paul Brown Stadium, among others. Oktoberfest alone saw more than half a million people and 29,000 streetcar rides. In its first two weeks of operation, transit officials estimated more than 100,000 rides were taken, more than 18,000 of which were over the weekend the Bengals came home.

By comparison, transit officials said they prepared for about 3,000 rides per day, on average.

"It will be some weeks still before the dust settles from the fast-paced start of streetcar revenue service," Black wrote. "I fully anticipate that SORTA will revolve issues at the margins of operations over the course of these first few months."

The same day, Ferrell replied to Black, saying, "Many of the issues you reference are related to ridership far exceeding projections, the growing pains of a new system, and assuring the adequate capacity of the system.

"We are prepared to increase capacity by adding vehicles as requested by the city, but that requires additional resources."

Read: More money.

But the city doesn't see it that way, setting the stage for a good, old-fashioned contract dispute.

The contract is at least vague, if not contradictory, when it comes to who should foot the bill for increased streetcar service: Black points to the contract's "headway" stipulation -- that is, how frequently cars arrive at the stop -- while the transit authority points to different elements of the contract, which calls for two streetcars to run during the weekends, and states the transit authority may request additional resources to accommodate "special events."

It's also vague in how it defines "special events" -- because it doesn't define them, a point City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson raised at a transportation committee meeting last month:

And the extra ridership -- while good news for transit officials and streetcar proponents -- isn't enough to cover the extra service.

According to SORTA spokeswoman Brandy Jones, the rate for extra service is $275 per hour per extra car, which goes toward operators, their supervisors, as well as wear and tear on the vehicles and the electricity used to power them. This could add up, with two additional cars, to just shy of $20,000, the amount the transit authority requested for increased service during Oktoberfest weekend.

For Oktoberfest, the firm hired to manage advertising on the streetcar, Advertising Vehicles, pledged any additional finances not covered by extra fare revenue and private donations left over from the system's opening weekend a week prior.

Turns out, the streetcar's operating budget shows just how little the system actually relies on fare revenue to keep the cars running: Only $300,000 of the more than $4 million budgeted for the streetcar's first year come from fare revenue. The lion's share -- more than half -- comes from revenue generated by parking meters and city-owned garages located in Over-the-Rhine, Downtown and The Banks.

In addition to high ridership -- some Reds and Bengals fans have commented that, even if the streetcar did arrive on time, it was too full to board -- Ferrell referenced traffic signal timing as another issue contributing to missing headways, an issue the city has agreed to investigate.

"We will continue to work with the city in its efforts to optimize the traffic signals for streetcar operations and to keep the tracks clear of vehicles, both of which affect our ability to operate on schedule," Ferrell wrote.

Ferrell and others have commented on Downtown's traffic signal patterns, which favor east-west travel -- connecting the region's two major interstates -- over north-south, which is generally the streetcar's trajectory.

Councilwoman Amy Murray, who chairs the council's transportation committee, asked Ferrell to prepare a report looking at all modes of transportation Downtown, including Cincinnati Metro buses and pedestrians, and how changes could be made to improve traffic flow.

That report, in theory, will accompany a sit-down between city administrators and transit leaders, in which they clarify the terms of their agreement in order to avoid any further confusion regarding increasing streetcar service.

It's a clarification that can't come too soon, as Assistant City Administrator John Juech pointed out last month, due to the changing nature of weekends in the areas served by the streetcar route: "It's our emerging sense that weekends are just going to be busier (than weekdays)," he said, adding that Cincinnati police now monitor anywhere from 6-8 events taking place each weekend.

"We need to be honest with ourselves here."

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