On Cincinnati streetcar's one-year anniversary, leaders thinking toward the future

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati's streetcar hits its one-year birthday on Saturday. While city leaders can point to a number of successes with the controversial Downtown transit system, they also have to sort out a lot of questions about its future -- most notably funding and expansion.

The streetcar -- launched Sept. 9, 2016 -- has had growing pains. Ticket machines initially weren't working properly. An already congested Downtown has caused delays in arrival times. And a slow winter caused many to question whether or not people are actually using the $150 million investment. There were also questions about ridership, delayed schedules and a number of technical issues that some say weren't expected.

Fare box revenue fell just under $80,000 short as of June 30. Fare revenue makes up roughly 15 percent of the streetcar's operations funding.

Kansas City, Missouri's streetcar -- the only other city to use the newest vehicle model like Cincinnati's -- has seen more success in ridership. At their one-year mark, they'd nearly doubled their ridership expectations, according to WCPO's sister-station KSHB. It's important to note, though: The KC Streetcar is free to ride.

While many of the technical issues here were addressed as they arose, a big question remains: What needs to happen to keep the system running?

City Council member and transportation committee chair Amy Murray credits the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation for its roughly $9 million donation to maintaining operations over the next 10 years.

"Just imagine if they had not stepped up," Murray said. "The streetcar would be in big, big trouble."

City Manager Harry Black said the streetcar doesn't get money from the city's general fund, but instead from things like Haile donations and parking meter revenue.

Building the streetcar line relied on a number of state- and federally awarded grants, but those sources of money can't be counted on for operations costs.

City Council already approved the second-year operations budget for streetcar operations. But there's some uncertainty about the long-term future of the streetcar, particularly whether it can become more than what it is now.

Will it go anywhere else?

Whether the streetcar ever expands beyond its loop through Downtown and Over-the-Rhine remains to be seen. When it began service in September 2016, some city leaders were optimistic that it would grow to other parts of the city.

"It's not a question of if we extend the streetcar," City Councilman Wendell Young said in a speech at the streetcar's grand opening. "It's where we extend the streetcar."

Uptown was initially mentioned as a possibility, with a 2009 study showing four possible routes that would connect the streetcar from Over-the-Rhine to Clifton, Corryville and other CUF neighborhoods. There was even talk of using tunnels to overcome the steep grade to Uptown.

But the tone has changed on expansion endeavors with the focus now on maintaining the status quo.

"Our focus right now is on the current streetcar operation, making certain that it is fiscally sustainable, that its operation is sustainable," Black said. "Our focus right now is that this streetcar system is as successful as it can be.

"Whatever comes in the future is for others to decide," he said, referring to City Council's role in making the decision to invest in any future streetcar expansion. 

The focus on sustaining operations is rooted in the streetcar surmounting a number of obstacles upon its launch. Most of the technical issues that arose in the streetcar's first few months of operation have been ironed out, although the system still isn't perfect.

"The streetcar is a new member of the Cincinnati family. You're making adjustments all around," Black said.

Murray said she still receives reports about the arrival display signs being not quite accurate. For Murray, the biggest challenge when thinking about expansion is money.

"It's not too early to think about (expansion), but as chair of the transportation committee and having been involved in this for the last three years, we have limited transportation dollars," she said. "If we had unlimited (money), it would be great to do many different projects, but with limited transportation dollars I think it needs to go to Western Hills Viaduct and to our bus system."

Weekends win, winters won't

One advantage city leaders have going into year two is a better understand of ridership patterns.

Warm weather and weekends saw more users and service can be adapted to accommodate demand.

"The biggest thing we've learned in the first year of the streetcar is the popularity of ridership on the weekends," said Paul Grether, director of rail services for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which oversees streetcar operations for the city.

This prompted Grether and his team to recommend the city adjust its vehicle run schedule -- that is, how many streetcars are out running and when -- to serve higher ridership on Saturdays and Sundays, versus the original plan to offer heavier service during the week.

This will continue into the streetcar's second year, he said.

"In order to meet the headway requirement -- the time between each streetcar -- we've actually started running a third streetcar on a regular basis on both Saturdays and Sundays," Grether told WCPO.

Grether also said the streetcar's first year has shown SORTA that, going forward, ridership projections will need to account for the now-shown fact that ridership dips in the winter and swells in the summer months.

"The ridership forecast was kind of like peanut butter, with the same amount of people riding every day," he said. "We know, based on our experience now with the benefit of having had a year of operations, that that's just not the case."

Grether said the new streetcar operations budget -- approved earlier this summer at around $3.2 million -- accounts for roughly 600,000 rides. As of September 5, the streetcar has seen 729,510 rides, according to a memo Black issued Thursday. SORTA will be prepared for the majority of those to take place during the warmer months.

"There's definitely been some seasonality to the ridership," he said. "As folks know, Over-the-Rhine, Downtown is a much more active place when the weather's warmer."

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

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