One month with Cincinnati's streetcar: 9 things we've learned

CINCINNATI -- Sunday marked 30 days since Cincinnati's streetcar launched for passenger service.

In the nearly impossible case that you haven't already heard, the Cincinnati Bell Connector -- as it was dubbed through a sponsorship deal with the region's telecommunications giant -- opened its doors to the public on Sept. 9, and already it has delivered on some supporters' promises, but also has raised new questions as the city acquaints itself with street rail transit after a nearly 60-year estrangement.

A glance at Tuesday's transportation committee agenda will show residents and riders have no shortage of opinions on the system's successes and shortcomings, many of which were compiled in a series of emails sent to councilwoman and committee chair, Amy Murray.

The learning curve was no surprise: A number of the issues that have arisen -- many of which were quickly resolved by the transit authority and/or the city -- were those Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority CEO and general manager Dwight Ferrell said he has seen in his 30 years managing public transportation systems, from confusion at the ticket machine to high ridership demand.

But after the streetcar's first week of service, Ferrell also characterized the launch as smooth: "I’ve been in transit 30 years, seen three startups, and none have had so few issues getting started," he said.

Here's a round up of the top things Cincinnati's learned about the streetcar throughout its first four weeks of service:

1. People are riding it

As of its fourth week, SORTA calculated nearly 140,000 rides taken, including the roughly 50,000 rides taken during its first weekend, when it was free to ride. The streetcar required a fare starting Sept. 12.

It's an impressive figure, to be sure, right on the heels of the similar Kansas City Streetcar, which opened in May and saw more than 180,000 rides in June, according to its transit authority. Cincinnati's own streetcar might be trailing that mark a bit, but keep in mind that Kansas City's streetcar is free to ride at all times.

Also like Kansas City transit officials have reported, weekend ridership has been particularly high. Speaking of Saturdays and Sundays...

2. More cars needed on the weekend

It was a busy September, and the streetcar bore some of that burden: on top of the streetcar's opening weekend seeing 50,000, Oktoberfest the following weekend saw some 29,000 rides. Then came the Bengals' home opener at Paul Brown Stadium and Midpoint Music Festival in Over-the-Rhine: That weekend saw 18,000.

The contract between the city and the firm hired to operate the streetcar, Transdev -- which SORTA oversees -- initially stipulated two of the city's five streetcar vehicles would operate on the weekend and provide 15-minute arrival intervals at the 18 stops along the 3.6-mile route.

But in the days leading up to Oktoberfest, it became clear that the city and the transit authority's respective expectations weren't aligned, when the transit authority requested an additional $20,000 from the city in order to guarantee those 15-minute intervals throughout what they anticipated would -- and proved to -- be a busy weekend. The city said it did not expect to have to cover the extra cost, saying, instead, that the contract stipulates Transdev cover the costs as outlined in the council-approved budget.

The disconnect led to a civil but tense back-and-forth between Ferrell and City Manager Harry Black, which culminated in the city and the transit authority jointly request that Transdev increase the number of vehicles running on the weekends from two to three.

3. It cost less to build than originally thought

This news came shortly before the streetcar's launch, but it's important enough to include here because of the extended disagreement in City Hall over the project's cost.

In a memo released early August, Black reported that multiple streetcar construction projects came in under budget, to the tune of roughly $2 million in savings. The total construction budget for the streetcar was set at about $148 million. Some of the $2 million saved was pumped back into the streetcar's contingency fund, while the city used a smaller portion to pay itself back for some of the streetcar's startup costs.

Supporters attribute the fiscal success to project manager John Deatrick, whom the city hired to manage the construction in 2013, when the project's future was thrown into question. In what many considered a surprise move, Black informed Deatrick that his position would be terminated on Dec. 31, 2016, something Deatrick would later say that he expected.

4. Ticket machines are a hassle (and so are chip readers)

One official called it a "teething problem."

Tweet: Official calls @CB_Connector ticket machine issues a "teething problem." http://ctt.ec/JFfe8

An executive with SPX Genfare, the company that manufactured the streetcar's ticketing machines, used the phrase to describe problems reported by riders regarding the machines' credit card functionality, which turned out to be the result of dysfunctional credit card chip readers. Cincinnati's streetcar was the first to use the new hardware.

The chip reader issue came to light after the transit authority made other efforts to improve the ticketing process, after they found many riders were only completing the first half of the two-step ticketing process. As it works currently, riders must first purchase a fare ticket, and then "validate" it -- effectively putting a timestamp on the pass, in the event someone wants to use a pass at a later time or date. Streetcar fare costs $1 for a two-hour pass, and $2 for a 24-hour pass.

SORTA has since proposed improvements to the ticketing process, including removing the second, "validation" step.

5. Drivers generally get it

Generally, drivers along the route understand how the streetcar works, and they don't really have an excuse otherwise -- given that the streetcars made their first appearance out in traffic in January of this year and the streetcar has been running its full service schedule every day since Aug. 1.

There have been two incidents involving automobiles colliding with streetcar vehicles: One involved an auto-driver making an illegal right turn on red and subsequently being sideswiped by a streetcar vehicle, for which police blamed the driver in the motor vehicle. The other involved a pickup truck making a turn on Walnut Street and being clipped by a streetcar vehicle. No blame was assigned in that collision.

There was also an incident involving a pedestrian boarding a streetcar during testing while the driver reportedly was out of the vehicle.

Each occurred before revenue service began. Since, there has been only one traffic incident reported, in which, while receiving maintenance, a streetcar vehicle rolled onto the tracks outside the system's facility on Henry Street in Over-the-Rhine, resulting in a temporary shutdown of the northern loop (between Henry and 12th streets).

The streetcar was also the target of a reported bomb threat that police later ruled not credible, but not before the evacuation and temporary shutdown of all five vehicles running on just its second day of operation.

A look at crash data also demonstrates that streetcar crashes remain exceedingly rare across the country.

6. It's state-of-the-art

The streetcar is one of, if not the most modern designs in the world.

That's because it is one of the most universally accessible streetcar designs invented: The design of the car and station stops creates a "100-percent low floor" environment for riders using wheelchairs or other motorized vehicles, in addition to accommodating bicyclists and others using carts or other wheeled devices, and providing a number of accommodations for the blind and visually impaired.

7. Dual loop system was worth it

When that streetcar vehicle escaped its pen last week, it demonstrated the value of the track's design -- that is, designing a track layout that could allow for closing down just half of the one-way loop, rather than, in the case of an incident, requiring a total shutdown.

It's a design that was initially considered to accommodate for Downtown events that traditionally ran along Fifth Street, such as Oktoberfest and Taste of Cincinnati, among others. An ordinance submitted to City Council last spring would have allowed such events to request partial suspension of streetcar service.

Rather than make such a request, Oktoberfest Zinzinnati relocated to The Banks between Walnut and Elm streets, to allow for continued streetcar service.

8. Downtown traffic signals not quite right for streetcar

Leaders blamed reported streetcar service delays, in part, on traffic signal patterns. That's because, due to the central business district's position between Interstates 71 and 75, traffic signals favor east-west movement over north-south, which makes up the majority of the streetcar's travel patterns.

It's an issue both the city and the transit authority agreed to review immediately, and for which transportation chair Murray already requested a report from the city that details traffic behavior patterns that studies the streetcar, buses, automobiles and pedestrians.

9. Cincinnati Bell sponsorship not worth as much as thought

At least as far as the city's cut is concerned, an I-Team investigation found last month.

The deal provides a long-term revenue stream for the streetcar that helps pay for operations. But the city won't see all of the $3.4 million.

The contract shows Cincinnati Bell doesn't directly pay the city. Instead, they pay another company, Advertising Vehicles, which also handles ads on Metro buses. That company keeps $400,000 off the top, Metro spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers said.

Connect with WCPO transportation and development reporter Pat LaFleur on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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