Roughly 15 months since its maiden voyage in September 2016, the Cincinnati Bell Connector hasn’t measured up to expectations. Ridership predictions for the current fiscal year (July 2017–June 2018) were cut way down from last year’s goals. Timing and efficiency measurables are a constant struggle. Budget questions still abound. While similar rail transit in comparable cities—Kansas City, for example—is booming, why is our streetcar lagging behind? Is it a matter of lowering our expectations, or will the Midwestern stubbornness that held it back for so long become the thing that keeps it moving forward?
Paul Grether, director of rail services for Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), is the man charged with ensuring the streetcar runs smoothly. But his biggest challenge is another kind of line: the operating budget allocated by City Hall. The Cincinnati Bell Connector isn’t allowed to use SORTA/Metro bus funds. “[The streetcar route] is as integrated as it can be given that it’s separately funded, separately branded, and owned by the city, not by Metro,” says Grether.
The issue stems from what Grether describes as the grassroots support that was needed to make the streetcar a reality in Cincinnati, which he believes is a key distinction from rail transit in other cities. “That’s not to say there haven’t been political champions for the project,” he adds, “but in terms of who the key stakeholders are, Cincinnati’s story is uniquely grassroots in how a group of involved citizens got the project to happen.”
“The core thing, and it was by necessity at the time, is that the Cincinnati Bell Connector came about as the result of a patchwork of decisions,” says Eric Avner, CEO of People’s Liberty and vice president of the Haile Foundation, echoing Grether. Avner would know. The Haile Foundation was one of the most prominent proponents and committed to contributing up to $900,000 annually toward the streetcar’s operating cost. “The way it’s set up structurally,” he laments, “no one is incented for it to thrive rather than just survive.”
Avner is also in the camp of those who believe that, in order to thrive, the streetcar loop needs to extend beyond downtown. He concedes “the political winds aren’t there right now,” but remains hopeful in part because of how the current system came to be. He points out that, despite John Cranley campaigning (and winning) on an anti- streetcar platform in 2013, the mayor has adopted a pragmatic approach to its existence, helping to hitch ongoing streetcar funding to the development it drives. Through Voluntary Tax Incentive Contribution Agreements (VTICAs) passed by city council in 2015, developers and property owners along the route will inject a portion of the money they save through property tax abatements into the streetcar’s operating fund. The program is expected to bring in $531,000 next year and could swell to $2 million a year by 2026.
And for as underwhelming as weekday ridership and fare revenue have been, the Cincinnati Bell Connector is hopping on weekends, in part by drawing riders from outside the urban core, where streetcar opposition has generally been strongest. This could signal potential for a shift in the constant battle with public opinion—a broader adoption of the pragmatic Cranley-esque we might as well help attitude—and perhaps even pave the way for a more cohesive, bona fide public transportation network.
How that last part manifests will be a key issue for city and county government officials in the coming years. “If [Cincinnati] ever expects commuters to fill those empty seats during the week, we need a completely integrated regional transportation system,” says John Deatrick, alluding to inadequacies with the existing Metro bus routes. The former Cincinnati Streetcar project executive is currently serving as director of public works and transportation for St. Mary’s County in Maryland, but he retains the same optimism as Avner when it comes to his old project.
“Even people who may have opposed the streetcar worked diligently with us in order to get it built,” says Deatrick. “That shows the real blessing of working in Cincinnati: neighborliness and willingness to cooperate and help each other out.”
In other words, the same impulses that fought the streetcar might just refuse to let it fail.