Cincinnati streetcar: The city now runs the 'Connector,' but what does that actually mean?

SORTA relinquished oversight at midnight, Jan. 1
Streetcar strikes Metro bus downtown
Posted at 12:00 PM, Jan 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-04 06:50:52-05

CINCINNATI — The new year brought new responsibilities to city staffers when the administration assumed oversight of streetcar operations, effectively making City Hall home to a transit agency.

The so-called "streetcar divorce" -- a moniker some used to describe the separation of the Cincinnati Bell Connector from the region's largest transit agency, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority -- took effect at 12 a.m. on Jan. 1.

But what changes the "divorce" will bring to the streetcar's day-to-day operations and performance remain to be seen.

City Manager Patrick Duhaney first introduced the streetcar transition plan in August -- one at the time he estimated would cost roughly $550,000 to implement -- but it's an idea that's been in development for nearly two years. Under its previous management structure, the city owned the Cincinnati Bell Connector, transit operations firm Transdev undertook the day-to-day procedures of running the streetcar, and SORTA oversaw Transdev's operations on the city's behalf.

What did become official on Wednesday: The city and SORTA terminated their operations and maintenance intergovernmental agreement, often referred to as the "OMIGA," which set the terms for the transit agency's role in overseeing Transdev. The city now has a direct contract with Transdev, and the firm will report directly to city staff.

RELATED: City Council OK's terminating streetcar contract with SORTA

"The city of Cincinnati will be a transit agency starting Jan. 1," said Deputy Director of Streetcar Services Travis Jeric during a Dec. 10, 2019 meeting of council's Major Projects and Smart Government Committee. Jeric's appointment to the new role within the Department of Transportation and Engineering was one of the first steps the administration took toward implementing the streetcar transition.

By removing SORTA from the management structure, some on City Council hope streetcar operations will become more streamlined and accountability will be easier to maintain. In a now famous March 2018 exchange between Assistant City Manager John Juech and members of the council, Juech described the streetcar's numerous early operational problems as a consequence of not having "one neck to choke" -- in reference to the management structure not indicating one specific person in charge of the system.

In the year and a half between that exchange and the streetcar's launch in September 2016, the streetcar hit multiple stumbling blocks: Wait times were -- and often still are -- too long. Ticket vending machines weren't working properly. Mechanical issues with the vehicles themselves were persistent, some weather-related, others not. Vehicles continue to block the streetcar tracks on a regular basis, and ridership remains lower than original projections.

Duhaney did clarify this week that one possible component of the streetcar transition -- an independent streetcar authority -- likely will not come to fruition.

In the earliest rumblings about changing the streetcar's management, City Councilman Greg Landsman laid out a plan, approved by Council, that would not only appoint a streetcar director but would also establish a nonprofit streetcar authority independent of SORTA and the city. After it became clear SORTA would likely be removed from the situation altogether, Councilman Jeff Pastor in September asked the administration to explore establishing a "Cincinnati Streetcar Transit Authority."

In a report released Thursday afternoon, Duhaney recommended against doing so, saying, in part, "the benefits of establishing a nonprofit to manage and operate the Cincinnati Streetcar do not appear to outweigh the potentially negative factors.

"This is because the city of Cincinnati may need to retain closer control in order to be eligible for future (Federal Transit Administration) funding, the non-profit may be less credit-worthy than the city, and, once selected, a nonprofit option may be difficult to unwind," Duhaney wrote.

Establishing a relationship with the FTA was one of the primary tasks outlined in Jeric's transition plan, but the city's mutual termination agreement with SORTA indicates the transit agency might still play a liaison-type role between the city's streetcar staff and the federal government.

A city spokesman told WCPO via email Friday afternoon that they have "every confidence" the FTA will recertify the city as a federal transit grant-eligible body. While that is still in process, SORTA will assist in facilitating the streetcar's relationship with the federal government and available funding opportunities.