CINCINNATI — It's an idea that elected officials and advocates have kicked around since before the Cincinnati Bell Connector opened for service. Now, City Council is soliciting public comment on making the streetcar free for passengers to ride.
The city's streetcar, opened in September 2016, has struggled to reach original ridership projections and has faced persistent mechanical and operational turmoil in the three years since its launch.
City Councilman David Mann first presented the idea to the council with a motion in May 2018, asking the city administration to study the feasibility of eliminating the fare.
When he first proposed the idea in 2018, Mann explained his reasoning: The cost involved in maintaining ticket boxes and enforcing the rules makes collecting the fares a financial boondoggle. By Mann's estimation, roughly a third of the dollars collected at ticket machines and through the Cincy EZ Ride app go back into maintaining and enforcing the fare rules.
Earlier this year, though, streetcar director Travis Jeric said making the streetcar free to ride would require finding a new source of revenue to replace income generated by fares.
"If we make it free, we lose all that revenue and we put ourselves in a hole," he said in April.
Jeric will present on the subject at City Council's Dec. 10 Major Projects and Smart Government Committee meeting. The news release announcing the public comment session did not indicate how Jeric might propose replacing fare revenue in the streetcar's annual operating budget.
As of Oct. 31, the streetcar generated $130,344 in fare revenue in 2019, up roughly $2,000 from the year-to-date budget. Fares have made up approximately 10% of the streetcar's revenue for the year.
Cincinnati's would not be the first streetcar system to offer free rides. As WCPO has previously reported, Kansas City's streetcar -- launched just months before the Cincinnati Bell Connector -- has been free to ride from its beginning. That streetcar system is in the process of doubling its footprint, and consistently has seen ridership that eclipses Cincinnati's.