From breweries to emergencies, here's why Cincinnati's streetcar has been stopped hundreds of times

Posted at 7:42 AM, Apr 19, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-20 10:54:33-04

CINCINNATI -- The Queen City's love of beer is literally stopping the streetcar in its tracks.

Popular Over-the-Rhine brewery Rhinegeist has become a hot spot for cars parking on the streetcar tracks, sometimes even throwing it off schedule.

In February, the city’s parking officers found the streetcar tracks were blocked somehow -- from cars on the tracks to people parking too close to the streetcar lane -- more than 135 times near the brewery.

That spot, 1900 Elm St., has had more track issues than any other block on the passenger car’s 3.6-mile route.

And Rhinegeist isn't alone. Transit authority and city data show certain areas throughout Downtown and Over-the-Rhine where streetcar blockages tend to occur the most.

Both riders and Cincinnati City Council have complained regularly about route delays during the streetcar’s first six months of operation. Clearing the tracks of cars and people is crucial to ensuring the train stays on schedule – and is a success.

The obstructions outside of Rhinegeist don't always result in delays for the streetcar. Since the city began testing the route last July, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which oversees streetcar operations, has recorded 38 instances when these blockages delayed streetcar service for more than two minutes.

But that’s enough to have Rhinegeist and city leaders brewing up a solution. After all, Rhinegeist pays to advertise on the streetcar, the brewery’s President Bob Bonder reminded WCPO.

“Obviously we want to see it run smoothly just like everyone else,” Bonder said of the streetcar. “While we are not the direct cause of most of the issues, we want to do anything we can to help.”

The offenders are often rideshare car services, drivers picking up or dropping off their friends outside the brewery and party buses, Assistant City Manager John Juech told WCPO.

Ridesharing creates streetcar headache

Rhinegeist isn’t the only problem area. Juech said ridesharing services -- think Uber or Lyft -- have been a problem for other areas on the streetcar such as The Banks.

SORTA sees any blockage that lasts beyond two minutes as a problem.

“Anything more than two minutes is having a significant effect on the normal functioning of the streetcar system,” Juech said during last week’s city transportation committee meeting.

The map below indicates approximately where such stops occurred - click/tap it to view the interactive version.

Click the map to view the interactive version

Note: For some blockage instances, SORTA did not provide a specific location, so those are listed in the table but not reflected in the map.

Crossing Fourth and Fifth streets on Walnut and Main is also often difficult for the streetcar, SORTA's data show. Walnut Street is particularly notorious for traffic congestion, and the streetcar is not immune.

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The reasons for track issues vary, too. Everything from emergency vehicles resting on the track to a “man selling a white substance” has stopped the streetcar at some point since July, records WCPO requested show. A fire in a building along the streetcar route can mean long delays, also.

Overall, the streetcar has been stopped for beyond two minutes more than 500 times since the city started testing it in July. The average delay held up the streetcar for about 10 minutes, records show.

"We've engaged with business owners, Uber drivers and delivery companies to reduce that number,” Juech said during a transportation committee meeting last week. "We have enforcement officers out all the time. We're writing those tickets."

Handing out tickets

City leaders say they’re being proactive to prevent stops. At least two parking enforcement officers drive the route daily to monitor the streetcar tracks.

Since January, parking enforcement officials have cited people 231 times for obstructing the streetcar across Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, indicating much of this enforcement is preventative. Even if a person doesn't actually block the streetcar, they can still be written up for being on the tracks.

But efforts to increase fines for driving on the streetcar tracks have stalled in City Council. Right now, the citation carries a $50 fine.

Councilman Chris Seelbach proposed increasing the fine to $100 but pulled his motion because it didn’t have support.

Other streetcar violations, such as riding without paying, carry stiffer fines, Vice Mayor David Mann pointed out during a committee hearing last week.

“I’m just struck by the irony that recently this council failed to pass an ordinance that would assess a fine of $100 for blocking the streetcar route, the consequence of which is that the streetcar can’t operate,” Mann said.

"We seem to have our priorities misplaced," he said.

Seelbach also recently took to Twitter to criticize Rhinegeist for causing streetcar headaches. In a tweet last month, he suggested the brewery should be responsible for hiring security to monitor the streetcar tracks.

"I think we all can do more," Seelbach later told WCPO. "So, businesses along the route need to make sure that delivery vans or party buses are not blocking the route. But the city needs to enforce our current laws.

"I think we're trending in the right direction," he said.

Bonder, the president of Rhinegeist, said he’s already taken steps in those direction.

Security is stationed to watch the streetcar daily, he said. And, he’s working with the city to possibly create a drop-off zone for the brewery farther down the street and off the tracks.

"I think the only unfairness has been the ways that we've been called out as if we're not doing anything about this, and as if we're the proximal cause of all the issues," Bonder said.

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

Amanda Seitz reports on government and politics for WCPO. Connect with her on Twitter (@AmandaSeitz1).