City Council member proposes eliminating streetcar fares

CINCINNATI -- What if the streetcar were free to ride?

That's a question one City Council member is asking the administration to explore. In a motion filed Tuesday, Council member David Mann moved that "the city pursue the goal of eliminating charges for streetcar ridership."

"I would like to see ridership be cost-free to the rider," Mann told WCPO Tuesday. "In Kansas City, where they've been practicing this from the beginning, there have been a million riders a year. Here, there are far fewer than that.

"We're spending a lot of money now to collect fare revenue from riders."

Of the roughly $450,000 in fare box revenue projected for fiscal year 2018, Mann said in his motion that the city is spending $125,000 just to collect the fare.

"I think it's counterproductive," he said.

Mann thinks there are other ways to recuperate the roughly $325,000 the streetcar generates in net ticket revenue sales each year.

His proposal would create a "Parking Trust Fund" to eliminate the need for streetcar fares. The streetcar's current operating budget relies on roughly $1.5 million each year to fund operations, while budget projections through 2019 anticipate a drop in fare box revenue.

In his motion, Mann proposed waiving parking requirements developers face in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine if they contribute a portion of what they would have paid to provide those parking spaces into the proposed parking fund.

"That would develop, I think, significant resources and allow us to reduce or eliminate the cost," he said. Mann also floated the idea of approaching the streetcar's corporate sponsors -- including its namesake sponsor, Cincinnati Bell -- for assistance.

"We're not talking about increasing the cost to the taxpayers of operating the streetcar," Mann said. "Instead of recovery at the farebox, we'd seek to recover from the developers that have been given relief from the parking requirements, corporate sponsors and the like."

Mann said it's about finding a way to make the streetcar a success -- and for him, that comes down to continued development in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, but also showing the city the streetcar's value, and that means ridership.

"We have a tremendous investment in the streetcar, and I personally think it's tremendously valuable to our city, and we need to find a way to enhance ridership," Mann said.

Streetcar ridership has struggled to maintain initial projections, with ridership levels consistently lower in winter months since its launch in September 2016.

Fare collection boxes were also a thorn in the city's side from the streetcar's launch, with technical issues involving credit card readers and display malfunctions only being resolved late last year.

"It started out with folks having a lot of lack of credibility that, if they tried to ride the streetcar, they could even buy a ticket," Mann said. "That's a problem, and that would be eliminated with this change."

The Kansas City Streetcar, which opened only months before the Cincinnati Bell Connector in 2016, does not charge a fee to ride its 2.2-mile urban connector line.

Mann's motion will go to his council subcommittee on budget and finance. That committee's next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 29.

"I think this would make a much higher ridership, which will make us a lot better about the streetcar and what it does for our community," Mann said.

 

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

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