COLUMN: Shutting down the 'shut down the streetcar' talk

Pat LaFleur covers transportation and mobility for WCPO.

CINCINNATI -- Another month, another reason to rail on the streetcar.

This time? The streetcar was shut down last weekend due to "mechanical issues," City Manager Harry Black said in a Jan. 18 memo.

"This is unacceptable," Black said.

He's right. It is unacceptable. The city paid a lot of money for these streetcars and to build their tracks.

But also unacceptable is what seems to follow nearly every bump and hiccup the streetcar hits: the call by detractors to send the streetcars back and shut down the system.

We see it play out most -- like most controversial things do today -- on social media. Headlines that prompt angry comments calling the streetcar a "boondoggle," a "waste of money" and "never meant to be," to take a few examples from a WCPO Facebook post Friday. These were comments left on a post linking to WCPO's coverage of last week's weather-related mechanical issues.

But using every setback as a reason to call for shutting down the streetcar isn't just counterproductive, it also would cost the city a lot more than it takes to keep it running every day.

Naysayers found out about that back in 2013. That's when newly elected Mayor John Cranley tried to block the project. After a two-week hiatus, construction resumed because Washington threatened to reclaim millions in federal funding granted to the project if the city didn't see it through.

Now that it's built and running, the same rules apply. If the city shuts down the streetcar, it would have to pay the government back federal money used to build it. The contract between the city and the feds stipulates that the system must remain in service for the duration of its "useful life," which for a rail system is usually a matter of decades.

A more sensible call to action by those frustrated by the streetcar's troubles would be to tell the city to ask CAF -- a subsidiary of the Spain-based manufacturer that built the vehicles -- to replace the faulty streetcars it built.

Calling for a system shutdown is a scorched earth approach that would end up costing the city millions of dollars and would create more problems than it would solve. 

Another common misconception is that taxpayers are footing the bill for streetcars that don't work.

It's actually not that simple. The city hasn't paid the manufacturer since November 2016, when it was clear the streetcar vehicles were having persistent mechanical issues. 

"The city will continue to withhold final acceptance and payments, now totaling more than $4 million, on the streetcar vehicles until they are in full working order," Black said.

It's worth noting that $4 million is about what it cost to operate the streetcar during its first year. The streetcars might have been faulty, but the city effectively ran the system for free for its first year anyway.

All of this leads me to wonder: What does it take for the streetcar to get some positive publicity?

One of the streetcar's biggest success stories was roughly one year ago, during the first Women's March at Washington Park, which drew some of the streetcar's highest ridership numbers. 

It also prompted frustration. The streetcars were packed full for most of the day, and that meant a lot of people had to wait. Streetcars would be too full for people waiting at certain stops to get on board.

A similar situation occurred during the streetcar's first Oktoberfest in September 2016 -- just a couple weeks after the system's launch -- as well as during BLINK last October.

What these weekends have told us is that, in addition to the mechanical issues, the streetcar struggles to keep up with increasingly high-capacity Downtown events.

That's not a bad problem to have.

Yes, the city should do everything in its power to make sure the manufacturer of these vehicles delivers on its promises to provide functioning vehicles.

Rail systems are built to last for a century, and it's no surprise that it's stumbled as it is getting its footing. It's a fool's errand to try to compare Cincinnati's streetcar savvy to how well other cities have implemented their transit systems.

Right now, it seems the streetcar is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn't. That needs to change.

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