City and transit authority agree to run more streetcars during Oktoberfest

Private donor could help Oktoberfest costs

CINCINNATI -- The city "worked something out" in order to cover the additional $20,000 the transit authority requested to operate the streetcar during this weekend's Oktoberfest celebration at the banks, City Manager Harry Black said Wednesday.

After being pressed for more specifics, Black said the money would come from surplus private donations from opening weekend as well as an expected revenue increase due to the crowds during the festival. The city said they're expecting more than 500,000 people to attend Oktoberfest this year.

Black also said that, in the event that the increase in ridership does not cover the gap, Advertising Vehicles, would step up and provide what was left.

Advertising Vehicles is the same firm hired by Cincinnati Bell that, the I-Team discovered last week, kept a little more than 38 percent of the $3.4 million, 10-year sponsorship deal that led to the streetcar's rebranding as the Cincinnati Bell Connector.

"Advertising Vehicles is happy to support the Cincinnati Bell Connector going into such an important weekend for the city of Cincinnati," said Ken Black, president of Advertising Vehicles, in a statement late Wednesday. "Soon the success of the Connector will speak for itself and eventually ridership will be a more known quantity. For now, we are happy to support the City, our advertisers and Cincinnati Bell."

The announcement that the streetcar would run additional cars "as needed" came after some bickering Tuesday. The specific number of additional cars remained unspecified.

SORTA's announcement didn't say how many streetcars will run at any given time, only that they will provide as much service "as needed."

Council member Chris Seelbach tweeted that four of the five streetcars will be running. The service opened last weekend with all five streetcars operating.

A mayor's staffer passed out a notation from the streetcar operations agreement that states it will "operate every 15 minutes" on weekends.

SORTA's release said the city will pay per its contract. Seelbach's tweet said the city won't pay. Council member Yvette Simpson told WCPO the city administration found additional funds.

City Manager Harry Black appeared to dodge the issue in the following statement from the city:

"For this weekend, we have worked out a way for this expense to be covered without any additional cost to taxpayers. Meanwhile, we are engaging with our policy makers and SORTA on a longer term solution for weekend capacity."

Later, at the afternoon city council meeting, Black was more forthcoming.

"We have some leftover donated funds from last weekend. We're expecting enhanced (fare) revenue," Black said.

With their dispute this week, the two sides managed to cast a shadow over the streetcar's successful opening last weekend, when the city said 50,000 people took free rides. Fares went into effect Monday.

This story will be updated. See the previous story below.

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CINCINNATI -- The city's new Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcars saw more than 50,000 rides during its opening weekend, the transit authority announced Tuesday, but that wasn't enough to prevent continued tension around the controversial project.

This time, though, the question was about whether or not the streetcar's normal weekend operating schedule would be adequate to accommodate the anticipated 500,000 people expected to descend into Downtown and The Banks for this weekend's Oktoberfest Zinzinnati festivities.

"This is not a bad problem to have," said Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld during Tuesday's meeting of the transportation committee, of which he is a member.

But there was question during Tuesday's transportation committee meeting about how best to serve riders and the festival this coming weekend. According to a letter submitted to City Manager Harry Black by Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) CEO Dwight Ferrell, the city would need to provide extra funds in order for the streetcar to keep up its normal schedule in the face of anticipated crowds and increased road traffic.

That extra cost runs around $20,000 to keep streetcars running at their weekend schedule of every 15 minutes during Oktoberfest's anticipated crowds. Without the extra funding, SORTA says it can only operate two of the five trains. 

Ferrell's director of rail services, Paul Grether, was in council chambers to explain the communication, which included a recommended service strategy for the weekend, as part of his monthly update for the committee.

Vice Mayor David Mann viewed the letter as an admission that the transit authority wouldn't hold up its end of the deal.

"I'm shocked," he said during Tuesday's meeting. "I don't think the city can accept that."

But Grether insisted the transit authority had no intention of violating the contract: "We intend to fully comply with the operating agreement."

The question boiled down to which agency -- the city or the transit authority -- should front the financial risk associated with increasing services, which are currently set at 15-minute intervals on the weekend.

The contract reads that during special events, SORTA should take direction from the city and bill it the cost, but Mann said the transit authority still has an obligation to keep trains running on time. 

“We’re obliged to provide service every 15 minutes, but we’re not obliged to take the financial hit if that’s difficult because there’s a lot of people here for Oktoberfest -- I mean, give me a break,” Mann told WCPO after the meeting.

Ultimately, Councilwoman Amy Murray, who chairs the committee, admitted this contradiction was probably above Grether's pay grade.

"With issues like this, we really need to have director Ferrell here," she said.

Given Oktoberfest's imminent arrival, Mann's solution? "Let's agree to fight about it later."

Sittenfeld took a cooler approach, saying, "We shouldn't be freaking out about this. Ultimately, this weekend will serve as a test case."

Councilman Chris Seelbach was not shy with his frustration over Tuesday's discussion, scolding the committee for what he said were attempts to change the narrative of what he called an "abundantly successful" opening weekend.

During its opening weekend, the streetcar carried more than 50,000 riders, according to a release from the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, despite severe weather and a temporary shutdown Saturday after police responded to a bomb threat along the track. The streetcars were shut down from roughly 5:30 to 7 p.m. Saturday due to the threat, which city officials later confirmed was not credible.

About the weekend's ridership numbers, transit authority spokeswoman Brandy Jones said, "It would have been impossible to project the numbers, however, the tremendous response we have seen and continue to see is really encouraging."

Fare service began Monday, when officials said the streetcar experienced some minor delays due to traffic congestion as well as riders learning how to use the fare boxes to purchase. The streetcar was free to ride during its opening weekend.

Despite those delays, Jones said she was "pleased" with ridership during Monday morning's commute.

In anticipation of the estimated 500,000 visitors for Oktoberfest next weekend at The Banks, authorities also encouraged riders to download their mobile app, which can help plan a trip as well as purchase fare. Fare can also be purchased at kiosks located at each of the system's 18 stations.

The Cincinnati Bell Connector makes 18 stops throughout Over-the-Rhine, Downtown and The Banks, charging $1 for two hours or $2 for a 24-hours pass.

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

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