Cincinnati streetcar will offer monthly passes during summer months

CINCINNATI -- Later this spring, streetcar riders will get something they've been asking for since before the trains hit the track: a monthly pass option.

As part of a summer promotion, the Cincinnati Bell Connector will allow riders to pay for a month at a time in June, July and August. Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority spokesperson Sallie Hilvers made the announcement before city council's transportation committee earlier this month.

As fares are structured now, riders can purchase a two-hour pass for $1 or a 24-hour pass for $2. Hilvers said the monthly pass is still "in development," but she suspects it will be comparable in price to the Founders Club passes SORTA sold for $50 in the weeks leading up to the streetcar's September 2016 launch.

That calculates to riding the streetcar more than 25 days each month in order to bring the daily cost below $2.

Hilvers said determining the cost of the monthly pass is a critical decision to ensuring it's an effective rate that complements the rest of the fare schedule.

"There's a relationship between fare -- fare level in particular -- and ridership," Hilvers said. "If fares go up, ridership tends to go down and vice versa. The streetcar's already very competitively priced."

Hilvers said SORTA wants to have the monthly passes available for purchase by sometime in May. SORTA's Cincinnati Metro bus service offers monthly passes starting at $70 for routes serving within city limits, with rates increasing for routes that extend farther into Hamilton County. Northern Kentucky riders who work Downtown -- or vice versa -- can get a combination Metro/TANK pass for $105.

The temporary, promotional nature of the pass is the only way SORTA can offer the monthly rate for now, Hilvers said. That's because any change in the streetcar's fare structure needs the review and approval of the Federal Transit Administration -- an approval process that, among other components, requires a formal report from the city administration.

This is true for any transit system that received FTA funding. The streetcar falls into that category.

Hilvers said transit officials are working with the city to assemble such a report, pending approval by city council.

Promotional campaigns, however, do not require FTA approval.

While the upcoming promotion will extend through August, last September -- when the streetcar opened for business -- was one of its biggest months in terms of ridership. That's not just because it was new, but also due to events taking place Downtown, at The Banks and in Over-the-Rhine at that time of year. Most notably, with the exception of its opening weekend, when rides were free, Oktoberfest remains the streetcar's top ridership weekend.

Hilvers said SORTA hasn't ruled out the possibility of a fall monthly pass promotion to follow the summer offer.

City Council member Amy Murray, who chairs council's Major Transportation and Regional Cooperation Committee, said she'd like to see the monthly option added permanently.

"It's so important to increase ridership and encourage ridership," she said. "That way people know, if we have a monthly pass, they can just hop on and ride it every day, even if it's just one stop or two stops or three stops or further, they're able to do that."

Murray even took it a step further, suggesting the benefits of a six-month pass.

"Often what you want to do with passes is have them bundled," she said. By "bundled," she meant passes that would balance three high-ridership months with three low-ridership months.

"Ideally what you want to do is have it bundled together to encourage ridership in these slower months."

Heavy streetcar ridership early on was both a blessing and a curse, with city leaders and transit officials early in the streetcar's lifespan expressing concerns over capacity and timeliness, when long lines -- among other issues -- meant that some would have to wait longer than promised to board the streetcar.

The winter months saw a sharp decline in ridership, which Hilvers said transit officials expected. February saw the first increase in ridership after the dip, according to transit authority data.

Hilvers said riders will be able to purchase the monthly app online or at their Downtown purchasing office, beginning sometime in May.

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

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