COLUMN: Track blockage that trapped riders on streetcar should mean enough's enough

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO.

CINCINNATI -- Ever been stranded on the airport tarmac, waiting -- it would seem endlessly -- for your gate to open?

It's crowded. The seats are small, and you've probably been sitting there for hours. You've been told over and over that it should be just another five to 10 minutes. All you want is to stretch your legs and finally get to your destination.

Streetcar passengers got a mild taste of that frustrating scenario over the weekend, when -- once again -- a vehicle parked on the tracks halted streetcar service for at least 20 minutes.

For reference, that's five minutes longer than passengers should have to wait for the next streetcar to arrive at their station even during light service hours.

It's one thing for the streetcar to be blocked. This incident was different, though, because it meant passengers on one vehicle couldn't exit until crews cleared the tracks.

They were stuck.

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Let's be clear about one thing right away: These passengers' confinement to the streetcar vehicle is not the fault of the streetcar system itself -- often a quick conclusion to draw.

The blame falls on the driver -- and the officials responsible with enforcing the law.

Why couldn't the operator just let the passengers off while they cleared the tracks? Because they had no choice in the matter.

In a statement confirming the June 3 afternoon blockage, Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Director of External Affairs Brandy Jones told WCPO that streetcar operators could not release the passengers from the vehicle without breaking federal and state transit safety regulations.

"(S)treetcar service was suspended due to a vehicle blocking the track, preventing the streetcar from pulling into the next closest station," Jones said in an emailed statement Monday evening. "Per state and federal certified safety procedures, we are not permitted to evacuate passengers in the right-of-way in an uncontrolled manner."

WCPO asked SORTA if passengers had been stuck on a blocked vehicle in any other past blockage incidents but did not immediately hear back.

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For Councilman Greg Landsman, the position of fault is unclear. He spoke about the incident during Monday's Budget and Finance Committee hearing when SORTA officials presented their 2019 streetcar budget request.

"If you asked, 'Where does the buck stop?' on the issue of blockages ... you would get a multitude of answers," he said during the meeting.

For Landsman, Sunday's incident is symbolic of a string of missteps and buck-passing that ultimately results in a negative experience for residents and visitors alike. And that's not just a negative experience with the streetcar but with the city itself.

"As people were leaving -- frustratedly -- somebody from out of town commented on their experience of our city," Landsman said. "It was negative because of this."

Landsman is right.

Sunday's incident was just another layer added to the continuing reliability issues impeding the streetcar's success.

"That (incident was) a bad one, but so is sitting on a platform waiting for a streetcar," Landsman told the committee and SORTA officials. "So is getting in a streetcar and having to wait way too long to get to where they want to be."

So let's consider those other two sources of blame. First, the driver. We've had more than 18 months to learn that parking on the streetcar tracks is strictly prohibited. You just can't do it. Ever. Period. There is signage all along the track indicating this.

This is another reason why the city needs to up the fine for parking on the streetcar tracks to $100, rather than the $50 currently charged.

But equal responsibility -- more so in the rare case that this driver might be from out of town and could reasonably plead ignorance -- falls on the city to enforce this traffic rule and get vehicles moved and moved quickly. This city is not short of towing companies who would jump at the chance to charge for another run, and I'm not convinced it would take a tow truck more than 10 minutes to get anywhere along the streetcar route.

One detail to this story -- if true -- would make Sunday's incident even less excusable. Landsman anecdotally recalled that this was a delivery driver of some sort, unloading before clearing the tracks.

SORTA officials did not confirm this, nor whether the driver was cited.

If this was a delivery driver, it adds two more points to the list of ways the streetcar's right-of-way is not just forgotten but actively ignored. First, if this was a delivery driver, he or she probably has delivered to this location before. Delivery drivers drive the same routes constantly. That's their job.

But by the same token, if this was a delivery driver who was not towed or approached with a ticket or tow truck in less than 20 minutes, that suggests officials allowed this driver to hold up the streetcar while he or she made the delivery.

Any of the possible explanations for Sunday's incident are simply unacceptable. We can do better. We have to do better. Leaders need to be less patient and enforcement officers more vigilant -- otherwise no one will take seriously any claim that this city wants to make the most of this $150 million investment.

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