Here are some transit and mobility stories we'll be watching in 2019

Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-03 07:00:44-05

Last year might be a tough act to follow when it comes to transportation headlines, but it also set the stage for a lot to watch in 2019.

That's partly because last year saw numerous transit- and mobility-related issues discussed and debated but left unresolved. It's also partly because some attempts to make getting around Greater Cincinnati easier and safer for all types of commuters seem to have worked, and now advocates for those projects are feeling inspired to push for more.

Here's a quick preview of some of the stories we'll be following closely this year.

Getting to school safely

Much of the City Council's attention in the last month of 2018 focused on what has become an alarming trend outside of Cincinnati schools. In December alone, Cincinnati Public Schools officials said drivers hit nine students who were walking to campus.

The crashes prompted a parents' rally outside Western Hills University and Gilbert A. Dater high schools, as well as a special meeting of the council's Law and Public Safety Committee, where Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman called on officials with the Department of Transportation and Engineering to take action immediately.

"We have long-term things that we're going to be working on, clearly," Smitherman said at the Dec. 27 hearing. "What are those short-term things we can do right now, that are in our power, so that we can clearly send the message that we're in the process of fixing the speeding there?"

DOTE Director Joe Vogel told the committee he was convening a task force consisting of transportation officials, school administrators, police and transit authority officials to strategize. Vogel said that task force would meet Wednesday, in anticipation of students returning to class the following Monday.

The committee hearing also prompted Duke Energy to install new LED lights outside the two West Side high schools where the majority of students were hit while walking to school.

Get ready for a new round of negotiations between the city and the school district over how many crossing guards the district has to patrol intersections outside schools, too. Crossing guards are city employees funded with CPS dollars.

Finally a transit tax?

For the second year in a row, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Board of Trustees in 2018 opted not to ask Hamilton County voters to pay more in sales tax for increased and improved Metro bus service -- preserving Greater Cincinnati's role as the state's largest metropolitan region not to finance public transit with a sales tax levy.

Passing on November's ballot means the board's next chance to put a measure before voters will be in May 2019.

Board Chair Kreg Keesee promised to continue negotiating terms of a county-wide ballot measure with stakeholders into 2019. Shortly following the board's decision not to put a measure on 2018's ballot, though, volunteers with the grassroots advocacy group Better Bus Coalition floated the idea of gathering signatures for a city-wide ballot measure instead. That transit tax would take the form of an increase to the city's earnings tax, which remains Metro's primary source of funding.

Traffic and parking around a new stadium

Construction on FC Cincinnati's new Major League Soccer stadium in West End will begin in earnest in 2019, but not until the City Planning Commission and City Council approve the site plans submitted late last year by the team's designers and engineers.

One of nearby residents' biggest concerns is how the stadium will impact traffic and parking on days when the stadium is in use -- whether for a soccer game or some other large event.

The city is still waiting on a traffic study from the team's engineers -- what some residents say is a critical element of the site plan that leaders must have before they can make a final decision on the stadium's design.

The planning commission must approve the team's design and engineering proposal before the City Council can consider it. The commission will discuss the proposal at its regularly scheduled meeting on Friday.

Some new moves for Metro

Whether or not a transit tax makes it to the ballot this year, some fresh plans are already in the works for 2019.

First, the transit authority announced late last month that its CEO of four years, Dwight Ferrell, will step down as the chief executive, effective Jan. 31. While Ferrell will remain in a consulting capacity through June, the transit board is now searching for Ferrell's replacement. COO Daryl Haley will act as interim CEO in the meantime.

Ferrell's resignation came as Metro officials launched a massive effort to revamp its network of roughly 5,000 bus stops throughout the region, in the hopes of decreasing delays along Metro's busiest routes and accommodating more stops with benches and shelters for riders while they wait.

Metro already has begun the process of evaluating its existing route network, and it will hold public meetings in January to educate the public on what to expect and when.

Going on a road diet

One of 2018's biggest success stories as far as making Cincinnati streets safer for commuters came after the city removed parking restrictions on Hamilton Avenue in Northside's business district. Allowing drivers to park along the busy stretch at all hours of the day -- even during rush hour, when parking formerly was prohibited -- reduced travel to one lane in each direction.

Some refer to the concept as a "road diet" -- efforts to decrease drivers' speeds along busy streets.

The result on Hamilton Avenue, according to preliminary city data, was that crashes during the morning and afternoon commute times dropped dramatically. Between May 1 and Nov. 30, 2018, Hamilton Avenue saw nearly 70 percent fewer crashes than in 2017.

The Northside Community Council's Pedestrian Safety Task Force Chair, Mati Senerchia, called the rule change "a slam dunk."

"This is the definition of something working," she said during the council's Dec. 17 meeting.

Mark Samaan, a member of the NCC's task force, compiled the crash data and said he could see a travel lane reduction working along other busy commuter corridors throughout the city.

"If there's any area that's found a way to reduce crashes, I think other neighborhoods should look at it," Samaan said. "The concept is the same."

DOTE officials announced this week in a memo it would make the change permanent.

Speaking of road diets, the promise of an MLS stadium in West End put a long-promised Liberty Street road diet at risk in 2018, but not without prompting renewed vigor from some on the City Council to follow through with the project.

We'll have to wait and see how the stadium plans might impact efforts to narrow the seven-lane thoroughfare that cuts through the middle of Over-the-Rhine.

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