9 takeaways from 2 years with Cincinnati's streetcar

CINCINNATI -- The streetcar turned two years old on Sunday, and even some of the staunchest streetcar supporters agree that it's been a bumpy ride over the last 24 months.

"It's been a continual learning and improvement process," said Paul Grether, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority's director of rail services. He's overseen streetcar operations since the 3.6-mile loop opened for service September 9, 2016.

"We've learned a lot of things from operating the streetcar the past two years. We're working very closely with our partners at the city to address some of the challenges we've had," he told WCPO.

Those challenges include:

  • Faulty ticket vending machines
  • Inaccurate real-time arrival information
  • Late arrivals
  • Track blockages
  • Heavy Downtown traffic congestion
  • Weather-related mechanical issues
  • Questions in leadership and chain of command

WCPO spoke with city and transit leaders and compiled these nine takeaways from two years operating a modern streetcar system in Cincinnati:

1) The leadership structure needs to change

Earlier this year, rookie City Council member Greg Landsman -- whose committee oversees streetcar matters -- proposed restructuring the streetcar's chain of command. He wants to hire a city-employed streetcar chief executive officer, who would report to the city manager and SORTA's own chief executive.

City Council approved that motion May 31.

Cincinnati City Council member Greg Landsman discusses the Cincinnati Bell Connector on September 5, 2018, leading up to the streetcar's two-year anniversary on September 9. (Scott Wegener/WCPO)

"This would be the first time the project has had a person in charge, top to bottom, the whole project, which we desperately need," Landsman said.

"They can help us get the blockages resolved, the issues with the vehicles fixed, and all of the other things we have to do to increase ridership, including looking at the viability of making it free," he said.

As it is currently structured, the city owns the streetcar and entered into a contract with the transit agency. SORTA, in turn, hired a third-party firm, Transdev, to carry out operations and maintenance.

Just a few months before Landsman's motion, Assistant City Manager John Juech told City Council that the root of the streetcar's woes came from not having a single person to hold accountable when issues arise.

"You need one neck to choke," Juech said. "I don't know if we're going to get where we need to go under this management structure."

Landsman said the new executive director position should be filled before the end of the month and would be supported by an appointed, nonprofit community board.

2) SORTA might be out

Near the end of 2017, it was already clear the transit authority was considering exiting its streetcar operations contract with the city. It's since become more of a mutually agreed-upon separation.

It's what fueled Landsman's proposal for a new management structure.

As WCPO previously reported, "The streetcar is a luxury, and the bus system is a necessity," said former SORTA board member Gary Greenburg. "Every hour (our staff) spend on streetcar issues are hours not spent on the bus system."

The competition between attention allocated to the region's bus service and its streetcar system predates the streetcar itself.

Dwight Ferrell, SORTA's chief executive, said the streetcar's reliance on Federal Transit Administration funds would make it difficult for SORTA to completely "divorce" the streetcar, even if it came down to the streetcar's owner, the city.

"Because of how the federal funding flows through, permission or approval from the FTA would also be required," Ferrell told the SORTA board in December.

But part of Landsman's proposed re-organization might involve removing SORTA from the equation.

"If we want to see a dramatic improvement in the project's performance, we've got to be able to put everything on the table, and that includes management of the streetcar," Landsman said.

In an emailed statement to WCPO, SORTA Board of Trustees Chair Kreg Keesee said, "The administration has begun exploring the necessary steps and processes that would be required to facilitate such a request" to remove the transit authority from streetcar operations.

3) Streetcars don't like the cold

The winter months of early 2018 posed the biggest mechanical challenge the streetcar has faced since it launched a year and a half earlier. An air compressor component of the streetcar vehicles began to break down in below-freezing weather, SORTA officials explained.

It prompted then-City Manager Harry Black to withhold $4 million from the vehicle manufacturer, New York-based CAF USA.

"This is unacceptable," Black said in Jan. 18 memo to City Council and the mayor. "Due to these ongoing manufacturer issues, at my direction, the city has not paid CAF since November of 2016, nor has the city agreed to final acceptance of the vehicles."

Grether said maintenance and operations crews are in the process of installing redesigned air compressors on the streetcar vehicles.

"We're hoping and we're pretty confident that's going to address the issue this winter," Grether said.

4) People ride less when it's cold, too

An overall glance at streetcar ridership data -- provided by SORTA -- paints a murky picture.

 

The first two months of service were clear outliers: The initial hype surrounding the streetcar's much-anticipated launch combined with numerous events taking place in Over-the-Rhine, Downtown and The Banks to produce drastically high ridership.

Those figures took a quick nosedive, though, once temperatures started to drop in November 2016. The following 21 months began to show a pattern: More people ride the streetcar in the warmer months, and fewer ride in the colder months.

But even those trends don't hold fast. Take August 2017, when streetcar ridership plunged by roughly 10,000 rides, taking two months to get back up to the number taken in July.

"Ridership tends to reflect both the weather and activities in the city. We've seen that in our buses, too," said SORTA spokeswoman Brandy Jones.

READ MORE: What do ridership numbers actually tell us about the streetcar?

5) Weekdays are finally outperforming weekends

When officials began making predictions about how many people would ride the streetcar each day, and when, the initial assumption was weekday ridership figures would be higher than on Saturdays and Sundays.

That assumption was almost immediately squashed during the streetcar's first six months of operation.

By early 2017, then-transportation committee chair Amy Murray said she was surprised looking at the numbers.

"I'm interested to see in the summer months, since we haven't seen those months, does it pick up on the weekdays?" she told WCPO.

After the streetcar's first year, though, weekday ridership began surpassing weekend ridership, month after month.

 

6) We're still learning not to park on the tracks

As WCPO previously reported, streetcar blockages -- that is, usually, when a vehicle is parked on the tracks -- have increased over its lifespan, with some modest decline in recent months.

 

The biggest offenders were delivery trucks and Cincinnati Metro buses stopped along the streetcar loop, according to SORTA data obtained by WCPO. 

The blockage issue first came into clear view in early 2017, when officials pointed out Rhinegeist as a particularly troublesome spot for the streetcar, due to a heavy flow of rideshare services like Uber and Lyft picking up and dropping off outside the OTR brewery.

The brewery since designated a pick-up/drop-off spot farther north on Elm Street past the streetcar tracks.

But the blockage problem persisted even after businesses like Rhinegeist took action. For Grether, that has a big impact on the system's reliability because a blockage shuts down the entire system, delaying arrivals at every stop.

"From an operational point of view, we look at the headway -- that's basically the amount of time in between streetcars. We continue to see improvement of that month over month over the last two years," he said.

Some, though, think the city could do more to deter drivers from stopping or parking on the streetcar tracks. City Council member Chris Seelbach has pushed his colleagues on multiple occasions to increase the penalty for blocking the streetcar tracks. 

"Reliability of the streetcar - knowing it's coming every 12 to 15 minutes - is incredibly important, especially with people getting to work or on a lunch break or on a schedule," Seelbach said as early as February 2017. "They may risk getting a $50 ticket. Hopefully $100 or $250  is enough of a penalty they won't do something illegal."

As of this writing, the fine for blocking the streetcar tracks remains $50. Since March 2018, there have been 915 blockage incidents. The majority of those were five minutes or less in duration.

7) People are paying to ride

"We collect a lot of data related to fare inspections," Grether said. "We've seen that Cincinnatians are frankly very, very honest. We're seeing fare evasion rates of lower than 1 percent, sometimes even half a percent in some months."

Grether said the industry standard for fare evasion rates on a system like Cincinnati's streetcar is closer to 1.5 percent.

"So, we're very pleased with that," he said.

SORTA employs off-duty Cincinnati police officers to inspect fares on the streetcar on an undisclosed inspection schedule.

"You don't know when a fare inspector may board," Grether said.

8) Expansion still in limbo

When city leaders first conceived of a modern streetcar system running throughout Cincinnati's urban core, the first phase initially included tracks that extended from The Banks beyond Over-the-Rhine up to Clifton and the University of Cincinnati.

That extension was postponed after an attempt by then-newly elected Mayor John Cranley to stop the project outright. The result was a compromise that included just the OTR and Downtown portions of the streetcar.

Since its launch in 2016, there has been very little talk about expanding the streetcar's reach into Uptown. That's largely due to the operational and mechanical problems that have plagued the system in its infancy.

By contrast, Kansas City's streetcar -- which opened just a few months before Cincinnati's and uses identical vehicle models -- announced earlier this year it would be expanding its downtown connector line into adjacent neighborhoods. 

9) What's in a name?

In the streetcar's case, a lot. We're talking $3.4 million.

That's what the streetcar's chief sponsor, Cincinnati Bell, agreed to pay the city for the naming rights over its first decade of operation. Hence the streetcar's official title: the Cincinnati Bell Connector.

But earlier this month, Cincinnati Bell officials released a statement saying they "have concerns" about the streetcar's overall performance.

"Cincinnati Bell has concerns about the streetcar’s performance, which we have shared with the city," a spokesperson wrote in a statement. "At this time, however, no decision has been made regarding our sponsorship."

Landsman said he hopes the changes in leadership he's proposed will help convince Cincinnati Bell to stay onboard.

"I understand the frustrations people have, including Cincinnati Bell," he told WCPO. "I think the changes being made are the right changes, and hopefully that will keep folks who are invested in the project."

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

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