I-Team: $48 million transit station sits empty

CINCINNATI - Cincinnati has one of the longest transit stations in the world. But this multi-million dollar facility isn't connected to any transit system.

The Riverfront Transit Center opened in 2003. Eight years later, it sits empty and padlocked roughly 275 days every year.

The only time the half-mile long station under 2nd Street is open is during home games for the Reds and the Bengals, and then only private charter buses are allowed inside. Public buses still use the roadway on top of the center instead.

It's a massive concrete tube, 84 feet wide, two-stories high, spanning the distance between the two stadiums. Eight football fields long, it is lined with a mile of subway tile, several mosaic art installments and multiple glass and steel entrances.

It is a beautiful facility kept mostly out of sight.

Former Cincinnati mayor Charlie Luken calls the Riverfront Transit Center the biggest waste of money he's seen in his long political career.

"The only reason there's not more outrage about it, " Luken said, "is because people don't know it's there."

Mayor Luken helped open the transit center eight years ago. He inherited the station from previous administrations.

"It will be used by charter buses, public transit, school buses and shuttles for many years to come," Luken told the assembled dignitaries at the ribbon cutting.

His words would not ring true in the eight years after that day in 2003.

Now the former mayor wishes he never stood at the podium and sang praises for what is essentially an empty facility that cost taxpayers $48 million.

"We're eight years out, and nothing's happened, and for the foreseeable future, nothing's going to happen; so we are perfectly safe in saying that this was a waste of money," Luken said.

WISHFUL THINKING

The transit center was built during the Ft. Washington Way construction project. Planners figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build something below an elevated 2nd Street.

"If we had not done the Riverfront Transit Center when we did," said Metro spokesperson Sallie Hilvers, "it may have been physically impossible to fit in a transit facility of any size, or financially prohibitive to do so in the future."

The alternative plan was to build 2nd Street on mound of dirt.

Instead the transit center was built on wishful thinking. A November 2002 referendum that would have sent multiple commuter rail lines right through the transit center was defeated when 68% of voters said no to the proposal. That was just six months before the facility opened. It was too late to halt construction.

MILLIONS OF TAX DOLLARS BURIED UNDER 2ND STREET

Hilvers insists the transit portion of the project cost just $18 million. Reports from opening day show the final bill was as much as $23 million. But those amounts were for the floor and walls only. Add the transit center's roof that holds up 2nd Street, and the total project cost taxpayers $48 million from city, county, state and federal coffers.

It is an orphaned station with no rail line or even public bus service to justify its existence. The only other use it sees is when there's a big concert. Event managers use the facility for staging equipment and vehicles.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was a partner in the transit center's design and construction. The museum estimated 60,000 school kids a year would use the transit center and its dedicated entrance to the Freedom Center every year.

Today the school buses stop above ground on 2nd Street, never entering the transit center below.


View Tri-State's "ghost station" in a larger map

DESIGNED FOR A FUTURE THAT HAS YET TO ARRIVE

Metro insists the transit center will be used someday.

"The purpose was for a completely developed riverfront, and we're just not there yet," Hilvers said.

But both stadiums have been fully operational for nearly a decade. The Freedom Center has been open since 2004. Phase I of the The Banks project is nearly complete, with fully-leased apartments and restaurants already open. Only Phase II of The Banks and Riverfront Park are left unfinished.

Yet the Riverfront Transit Center sits locked and empty three fourths of the year, and there is no scheduled public transit service of any kind.

Homeland Security was concerned enough with the gaping hole running directly under the length of 2nd Street -- and right next to two major sports stadiums -- the department gave Metro $45,000 to install gates at both ends. Homeland Security also paid $28,000 for a security system upgrade. Two hundred and seventy-five days a year, you are prevented from visiting the station you paid for under penalty of criminal trespass.

The proposed route for Cincinnati's controversial streetcar stops three full blocks from the transit center. Even the original extension would have had the street car turn around on top of 2nd Street, never entering the empty station below.

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ATTRACTS MORE RUST THAN RIDERS

Meanwhile the 8-year-old facility is starting to show its age. Entrances are rusting. Signs are cracking and peeling. Weeds grow through the brick sidewalks.

Metro authorized spending $115,000 for a structural analysis after water was found leaking from 2nd Street into the transit center below.

But Metro says not a single tax dollar has been spent on maintenance. The approach aprons designed to handle 500 buses an hour have been leased to a private parking lot operator. The parking fees have run in excess of operating expenses, providing a fund for future upgrades and repairs.

Planners had predicted 375,000 riders a year would use the Riverfront Transit Center by 2010. Instead, Cincinnati has two empty transit tunnels on either end of downtown.

On the north side of downtown, there's the abandoned 1925 subway under Central Parkway that never saw a single train or rider.

On the south side of downtown, there's the half-mile long Riverfront Transit Center which is still waiting for a rail project or a bus line more than a decade after its inception.

Former mayor Luken fears the 2003 tunnel will face the same fate as its older cousin, the infamous Cincinnati subway.

"They were being told this was going to be a centerpiece of a regional transportation system, and frankly that never happened, and it's not likely to happen in time in my life," Luken said.

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