With streetcar up and running, advocates eyeing Uptown

Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-16 17:12:05-04

CINCINNATI -- During an impassioned speech at last week's streetcar grand opening, City Councilman Wendell Young firmly stated: "It's not a question of if we extend the streetcar. It's where we extend the streetcar."

Now that the Cincinnati Bell Connector had a start loop, which connects The Banks, Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, leaders and transit advocates alike are looking to what's next, and they're looking uphill -- literally.

Like the starter loop itself, connecting to Uptown via rail would not be new to Cincinnati: A central spine of Cincinnati's original, robust streetcar system that ran through the first half of the 20th century was a direct connection between Over-the-Rhine and Clifton via streetcars and three incline trams (one of five operated at the time).

An uphill battle?

A 2009 study conducted by Cincinnati-based engineering consulting firm HDR examined eight potential routes that would connect OTR and the CUF and Corryville neighborhoods via various surface streets heading up the hill, of which four were studied in detail (the others were deemed infeasible):

Four routes connecting the existing Cincinnati Bell Connector loop to Uptown and the University of Cincinnati. Click or tap to enlarge. (City of Cincinnati/HDR)

The study looked at these four routes -- one of which was a loop that would go north up Vine Street and return back down to the urban basin via West Clifton Avenue -- and judged them based on four goals:

  • Improve mobility and connectivity within downtown Cincinnati.
  • Support existing and proposed development in Downtown and surrounding areas, creating a more livable and walkable environment.
  • Maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the local and regional transit system.
  • Provide transit investment that's affordable, in terms of capital and operating expenses, and can be implemented quickly.

Of the bunch, the exhaustive study found each route offered numerous advantages and disadvantages. The McMicken/McMillan option, for example, had less of an incline, making it easier on the vehicles and covered the most ground, but would also mean longer travel times. It also carried the highest capital and operating cost estimates.

The Vine Street option had the lowest cost estimate and the quickest travel times but would also require the loss of travel lanes to accommodate the vehicles' size.

Going underground

Local developer and urban resident John Schneider has been at the center of Cincinnati's streetcar rebirth from the start (his nickname is "Mr. Streetcar"), and he has recently discussed a less orthodox approach to connecting to Uptown: tunnels.

Schneider, who has spent years organizing trips to Portland, Oregon to showcase the impact of multi-line streetcar networks, said the primary motivation of his concept is speed.

"I'm absolutely convinced that, if we're serious about getting Uptown, then that trip wants to be very fast, and that's going to require two short tunnels," Schneider told WCPO.

Schneider suggests extending existing tracks up Main and Walnut streets before beginning the first tunnel at the foot of Mount Auburn at the north end of Main Street. The tunnel would then stretch up to a surface station at Christ Hospital on Auburn Avenue before going below ground once again up to the university. Schneider imagined terminating somewhere around UC's practice football field or a little shorter.

"The point is: A straight line is the shortest path," he said. "It's doable and it will perform well." Schneider said he's recently conferred with several engineers who confirmed the soil and area can feasibly be tunneled through.

Schneider also said that having its own right-of-way up the hill would shave time off commute times.

"It would save probably five to 10 minutes of travel time for thousands of commuters a day, for 100 years. That adds up."

Schneider also wasn't shy about his belief that a route up Vine Street isn't the right answer, calling it "completely inadequate as a spine of a regional rail network," alluding to many streetcar advocates' notion that the loop should be viewed as the beginning of a region-wide light rail network that would extend beyond the city limits.

What Schneider wouldn't speculate on is cost, primarily, he said, because it's a notorious conversation stopper.

"The tunnels would up the cost," he admitted. "That's going to be a hard discussion to have."

But as he has for the last 15 years, Schneider said he remains optimistic.

"I think our path gets easier here," he said. "The construction gets harder, but we have rails laid and cars running now. We're on a track."

Why Uptown? Why anywhere at all?

For Schneider, it's simple: "The best reason is that a lot of people want to do it. The people want it."

There's some evidence to back him up: The pro-streetcar advocacy Facebook group, Cincinnati Streetcar, has grown to more than 17,000 members, and ridership along the Downtown-OTR loop throughout the first week of revenue service has been steady, according to transit officials.

But Schneider also said rail networks need to extend in order to flourish.

"The value of a network is directly proportional to the number of nodes on it," he said. "The more destinations you can reach, the more people you can serve," pointing to the university district's already heavy reliance on public transit, particularly among university students and staff, and shift workers at the various area hospitals.

UC spokesman Greg Vehr concurred, saying the university "has always been conceptually supportive" of a streetcar extension to Uptown.

"We're always willing to explore ways of connecting people in the city's two largest job centers," he said. "It adds a dynamic that is important to students and to people from Downtown who want to come up and visit the zoo or the university. It provides an additional option, and it helps add to the excitement."

Perhaps the university's most influential cheerleader for a streetcar extension was former UC President Santa Ono, who first expressed his support earlier this year during a speech to area high school technology students.

“I’m excited about the streetcar,” Ono said, “but I want the streetcar to come Uptown and so students who are in Uptown can actually go Downtown.”

Vehr said he expects university leadership's support will remain "consistent" as Ono's permanent replacement steps in.

The university has also contributed to streetcar efforts along the length of the process, Vehr said. The UC Economics Center has presented studies to the city on potential streetcar impact, in addition to the Carl H. Lindner College of Business' purchase of advertising space on the streetcar vehicles.

"The support is steady," he said.

Bridging the gap

Beyond Uptown? Scheider said crossing the river would be the best next step.

He's not alone. Earlier this year a coalition of local advocates and leaders formed the Northern Kentucky Streetcar Committee, which organized a lobbying trip to Washington D.C. in an effort to secure federal funding for a feasibility study of a Northern Kentucky extension.

According to the group's website, they propose crossing the Taylor-Southgate Bridge into Newport and, possibly later, following the riverfront west into Covington.