Checking in, as Cincy's launch nears: How has new streetcar treated Kansas City?

Hint: 'Really well' doesn't do it justice
Posted at 3:15 PM, Sep 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-07 18:37:34-04

CINCINNATI -- Sixty-seven hundred per day.

That's how many riders -- on average -- the KC Streetcar carries each weekday, according to Kansas City Streetcar Authority spokeswoman Donna Mandelbaum. The weekends can see as many as 9,000 riders a day, she said.

As WCPO has previously reported, Kansas City's newest transit option is a window into the future of sorts, having just launched in May its own $102 million, 2.2-mile streetcar connector line.

After four months of service, transit officials say the streetcar has seen more than 835,000 rides total, putting it on pace for about 2.5 million rides annually.

Hopping onboard -- and staying onboard

If the Cincinnati Bell Connector -- set to open its 3.6-mile loop for passenger service Friday, Sept. 9 -- meets even half that ridership rate, it will exceed its projected fare revenue estimates. City officials budgeted about 3,000 rides per day into the streetcar's operating budget for its first year.

In Kansas City, Mandelbaum said the streetcar's reception has more than exceeded their expectations.

"Kansas City's been hugely accepting of the streetcar," she told WCPO via Skype Wednesday. "We did not expect the numbers that we've been receiving." Not far from Cincinnati's projections, estimates for the KC Streetcar were for about 2,700 rides per day.

It's a pace Kansas City transit officials say they've observed since as early as a month into service.

But when using Kansas City's statistics as a comparison, the cost of riding must be considered. While the Cincinnati Bell Connector comes in at $2 to ride for an entire day, the KC Streetcar has been free to ride from its launch.

The fact that the KC Streetcar and the Cincinnati Bell Connector employ the exact vehicle type, as it turns out, is only one way these systems are similar: Both also bring with them stories of urban revitalization.

"Kansas City's been going through a rebirth of our downtown over the last 10 years," Mandelbaum said. "Now we see people coming in from all over the region and the suburbs with their families, exploring and using the streetcar to get around.

"That's really exciting."

It's a trend that Mandelbaum said is not losing steam.

"We've actually seen a lot more happen in the last six months," she said: In that time, she said more residential units, a new grocery store, multiple hotels and a few corporate headquarters have popped up along the streetcar line. In total so far, Mandelbaum said the city has seen nearly $2 billion in development along the connector line.

"That has actually exceeded our expectations, as well," she said. "The popularity of being around our streetcar line is not just being felt with our riders, but with our developers and employers, as well."

It's a similar story to what Cincinnati has seen in recent years, in anticipation of the streetcar's now imminent arrival. While an official tally hasn't been calculated for new developments along the Cincinnati Bell Connector loop, a quick comparison of Cincinnati's riverfront today compared to five years ago is telling: hundreds of new apartments, the Smale Park development, two upcoming hotel projects and a new GE global operations center. The GE project alone was a $90 million boost to The Banks' economic engine. 

Columbus-based PromoWest Productions has also expressed interest in opening an indoor and outdoor music venue on The Banks, as well, which they estimate could bring nearly half a million people to the burgeoning entertainment district.

Collaboration was a must

Another component to KC Streetcar's launch that officials say has exceeded their expectations is the way the city and its police department have worked together.

"I don't think you could pull off a project of this magnitude, with this kind of financial investment, without absolute collaboration," said Kansas City Police Sgt. Tony Sanders. "The streetcar is a culmination of the whole thing. I don't think you could do anything like this anywhere without that word first at the table."

Sanders and his department have been heavily involved with the streetcar since its launch, providing escorts and ambassadors who ride along on the route as well as participating in the transit authority's public education efforts.

"It's been a win-win situation all around," he told WCPO by phone Wednesday.

Sanders also said there has been "nothing big" as far as streetcar collisions go since WCPO last checked in, about a month after the KC Streetcar's launch. In that first month, it did see two incidents immobilizing a streetcar vehicle: In one, inclement weather caused debris to slightly derail a streetcar vehicle. In the other, a driver ran a red light and smashed into the side of the streetcar.

"We're just happy about the streetcar all the way around," he said. "It seems like, it's one of those things where people, when they get on the streetcar and see how clean it is, how efficient it is, there's security on there -- it's one of those happy things."

Sanders also said he's noticed an easing of pressure during rush hour: "We like the fact, from a police department standpoint, that it has reduced some of our traffic congestion."

Moving forward

It's a relationship Sanders said he hopes will expand with any future expansion of Kansas City's streetcar.

"Our involvement is, how can we best work with the 'fathers' of the streetcar, so to speak, and work that security component in, and expand it along with the streetcar line," he said.

While no official plans for expansion have been announced, the fact officials are already talking about it should give streetcar supporters here in Cincinnati a boost of hope that our starter loop will also expand.

But some questions remain in play, and won't have answers until the Cincinnati Bell Connector has a few months of service under its belt. The biggest question on everyone's mind in the days leading up to its launch: Will people ride it?

Along with no fares for riders, Sanders attributed his streetcar's smooth launch to a few other factors, as well: "It was one of those things that was done at just the right time, because of the summer season and tourism," he said. "It's been really well received -- not only with our residents but with our visitors."

That said, speaking of factors that could contribute to high ridership on launch -- in addition to a whole slew of events and special offers scheduled around the streetcar's launch this weekend, Cincy Beer Fest is also taking place on Fountain Square this weekend, and Oktoberfest Zinzinnati is scheduled for just a week later, to be held for the first time at The Banks.

And don't forget: Streetcar rides will be free all opening weekend.

Follow WCPO transportation and development reporter, Pat LaFleur on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).