CINCINNATI — After city health officials ordered the administration to suspend streetcar service during the coronavirus outbreak, they learned it might be more expensive not to run the streetcar than it would be to keep the empty vehicles on the tracks.
A spokesperson for Transdev — the firm contracted by the city to operate and maintain the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar system — informed Mayor John Cranley, members of City Council, City Manager Patrick Duhaney and various city staff that the cost to halt all streetcar operations until the spread of COVID-19 diminshes will outweigh the cost of maintaining a "skeleton crew" to keep the system ready for a quicker relaunch.
Cranley and Health Director Melba Moore ordered streetcar service suspended Monday, citing public health concerns as well as a looming budget gap as a result of the coronavirus. During that same briefing, Cranley indicated as many as 1,700 city employees faced temporary emergency leave and multiple services would face cuts.
The streetcar was one of them.
But Transdev officials suggest that it will cost more to stop and restart the streetcar than simply to suspend passenger service and keep the vehicles maintained and running at a reduced schedule.
"There are significant financial impacts based on the type of 'suspension,'" Transdev spokesperson Colleen Reynolds wrote in an email to city leaders Thursday morning.
The skeleton crew would consist of 12 employees continuing to maintain the five streetcar vehicles and other components of the system so they do not fall into disrepair, the documents attached to Reynolds' email indicated.
Transdev officials estimate such a crew would cost approximately $138,000 a month.
In contrast, the documents state, a hard shutdown would come with a monthly cost of just $25,000 but with a restart cost of anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million. The $25,000 per month during the full shutdown would go toward security staff for the streetcar facilities.
Under Transdev's best-case projections, the streetcar could run reduced service closed to passengers for more than two months before doing so would outweigh the costs of completely stopping and restarting the system. Under their highest cost estimates, the streetcar could do so for more than seven months.
Based on the city's experience launching the system in 2016, a full restart can incur additional costs, like the potential need to recertify operators, vehicles and other systems, as well as safety certifications required by the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration, Transdev told the city Thursday.
Having no one to maintain and service the vehicles could also lead to their physical deterioration.
"The skeleton staffing recommendation provides the best compromise between cost and risk for the city of Cincinnati and its streetcar system," officials wrote. "Our recommendations are based on our experience in Detroit, Milwaukee and in consultation with other large transit agencies."
Also included in Transdev's materials to the city were details outlining the firm's sanitizing process for its vehicles and facilities.
A city spokesman told WCPO later Thursday afternoon in a statement: "We received Transdev's proposals today and are evaluating the best course of action during the COVID-19 pandemic."