Cincinnati: “Our city confirmed its will to continue along path to a balanced transportation system”


Cincinnati: Simulation of streetcar running downtown. Graphic: City of Cincinnati.

Cincinnati: Simulation of streetcar running downtown. Graphic: City of Cincinnati.

By John Schneider

This commentary has been adapted from a December 19th statement by the author to supporters of the campaign to continue Cincinnati’s streetcar project, immediately after the favorable vote by the City Council.

With the City Council’s vote on December 19th to resume Cincinnati’s streetcar project, our city confirmed its will to continue along the path to a balanced transportation system. Our path has been up and down with lots of twists and turns and leaps of faith that took us to unknown places. But we soldiered-on, and now the path is wider, flatter, and clearly marked for others to follow, not only in Cincinnati but in other cities that want to gain more citizens and become more competitive.

There are so many people to thank, but first and foremost, I want to thank former Mayor Mark Mallory, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, and City Manager Milton Dohoney. Even though we reached our goal on December 19th, we wouldn’t have even been in the game were it not for their leadership of the Cincinnati Streetcar over many years. Their support cost them dearly, and we should be forever grateful.

And to our long-time champions on City Council — Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson and Wendell Young whose eloquence and persistence following the election, working with PG Sittenfeld, brought their colleagues, Vice Mayor David Mann and Councilmember Kevin Flynn, along to enable us to continue along our path.

Immediately after the December 19th vote, Mayor John Cranley was very gracious in offering his congratulations to me and to others. I hope this period of divisiveness now passes and that we can all join with him and Christopher Smitherman, Charlie Winburn, and Amy Murray to foster the city we all want to have.

Were it not for Ryan Messer, who parachuted-in to lead this effort in early November, we would not have succeeded. The kind of leader who emerges every ten years or so here, he brought new energy to our movement. Early-on, he recruited our attorney, Paul DeMarco, who used his contacts at the highest level of our nation’s government to bring about the results we achieved, to assure the Feds we knew where we were going. Early-on, without a hint of hesitation, Karen Blatt volunteered our spiffy campaign office, and Ryan hired Scott Allison to execute the flawless campaign to gather signatures. Others including Jean-Francois Flechet, Sean Lee, Rob Richardson, Jr, Margy Waller and Brad and Karen Hughes did whatever had to be done and were the wisest advisors and best team-players anyone could have.

There are so many others that contributed so much to this effort that I cannot mention them all but they are all strongly appreciated. Suffice it to say that this effort could not have been sustained over all these years without all the people who have been involved.

Eric Avner of the Haile Foundation raised $9,000,000 in a little over 48 hours, enough to make City Council comfortable that the cost of operating the streetcar was assured for the first ten years. This was the keystone of the plan to save the streetcar.

There were many memorable moments in this campaign. One I’ll never forget was the December 10th meeting at First Lutheran Church near 12th and Race, where 450 people showed up to sign-out their petitions. Chris Heckman and Kristen Myers are members of the congregation, and they quickly arranged for the church to open its doors twice to us. I’m certain this set the tone for the whole campaign.

John Schneider photo

John Schneider, Cincinnati’s “Mr. Streetcar”. Photo: Cincinnati.com.

Speaking of the campaign, we now have 11,000 Cincinnatians’ names and addresses for our efforts going forward. The planning and execution of the signature-gathering was orchestrated with great precision by The Strategy Group and its able leader, Ian James, who made a critical judgment that the number and intensity of our volunteers was more than adequate to gather the signatures. We wouldn’t need paid signature-gatherers. Plus, it gave us all an opportunity to tell the streetcar’s story in the way we know it. And by the way, we registered a bunch of streetcar supporters to vote in the process.

Our thanks go well beyond Cincinnati to the many people in many cities who have been watching our project intently, including especially Portland’s mayor, Charlie Hales and his wife Nancy, who have joined us on many of our trips there over the years. When he was in the private sector, Charlie helped plan the Cincinnati Streetcar, and he has been a guiding light for me. We’re not finished with the Portland trips. They have an early spring there.

Most of all, we should all thank our spouses, families, employers and co-workers for tolerating our absences over the past days and nights. They were soldiers in this too.

I hope that in this new year everyone will continue to work harder than ever to bring more diverse transportation choices to our city, Cincinnati, or to whatever city where you live.

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Tucson: Streetcar Celebration builds public anticipation of urban rail line opening


Tucson streetcar leaves center-street station during testing. Photo:  Tyler Baker, Arizona Daily Wildcat.

Tucson streetcar leaves center-street station during testing. Photo: Tyler Baker, Arizona Daily Wildcat.

Tucson, Arizona — It’s still many months away, but public anticipation of the opening of Tucson’s brand-new streetcar system has been building. And it’s getting a huge boost from the local Friends of the Streetcar group.

In collaboration with merchants at Main Gate Square outside the main entrance to the University of Arizona, the pro-streetcar group is sponsoring Streetcar Celebration: Destination Main Gate Square, a special celebration on January 15th, one of several shindigs the organization has been initiating to raise awareness and feed anticipation for the new service.

The 3.9-mile, $196 million modern streetcar line is due to open in mid-2014 after rolling stock supplier United Streetcar delivers all eight streetcars on order.

The upcoming festivities, scheduled on a Wednesday afternoon between 4:00 and 7:00 pm, will include performances by musical groups, a street performance group called Cirque Roots (featuring stilt walkers, hoop dancers, and acrobats), “fun with 2-EEE the Clown Face Painting and Balloons, a free photo booth by Bumblebee Photobooth with souvenir photos and more”, according to a report in The Explorer, a local publication. The Arizona State Museum will be open until 7:00 pm allowing free admission, and a number of restaurants, cafes, and various retailers are offering substantial discounts.

With opening of the new urban rail system scheduled for much later in the year, these events in Tucson by local rail supporters may provide an example of how to build public enthusiasm for the service — and hopefully pay off in higher ridership when the trains actually start rolling.

Merry Christmas, Cincinnati! Streetcar project resumes work


Cincinnati streetcar on order from builder CAF. Simulation: City of Cincinnati.

Cincinnati streetcar on order from builder CAF. Simulation: City of Cincinnati.

For supporters of urban rail, it’s been a clenched-teeth political action movie in Cincinnati, as newly elected Mayor John Cranley tried to implement his campaign promise to pull the plug on the city’s streetcar project — even though construction was well under way, tracks had already been laid in the street, and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) was threatening to demand repayment of of millions of dollars in grants if the project were cancelled.

Besides the new mayor, the election of three new councilmembers meant a council majority against the rail project, and on December 4th, the council voted to “pause” further work pending an independent audit by consulting firm KPMG. In response, the FTA issued an ultimatum: Resume the project by Dec. 19th, or forfeit the federal grant and pay back funds already transferred.

Meanwhile, the prospect of scuttling an ongoing project and wasting funds already invested sparked a local grassroots rebellion involving not just rail project supporters but a wider spectrum of Cincinnatians. A powerful mobilization for a referendum on a city charter change to require completion of the rail project collected roughly twice the number of signatures required — also attracting national media attention. This show of force seems to have helped in starting to move councilmembers’ leanings.

Recently laid Cincinnati streetcar trackage in Elm St. on Nov. 8th. Original granite pavers are being reinstalled to restore historic appearance. Photo: Travis Estell (Flickr).

Recently laid Cincinnati streetcar trackage in Elm St. on Nov. 8th. Original granite pavers are being reinstalled to restore historic appearance. Photo: Travis Estell (Flickr).

In addition, as described by a New York Times article (Dec. 22nd), “KPMG’s audit showed that completing the line would cost the city $68.9 million; canceling would run between $16.3 million and $46.1 million, not including the potential costs of litigation, which could be astronomical.” Thus, noted the Times, streetcar proponents were able to argue that “The city could spend millions of dollars and have a streetcar with the potential for return on investment, or have nothing to show for it while facing a tangle of lawsuits ….”

On the brink of the Dec. 19th deadline, the project was also reprieved by a written commitment, honchoed by the Haile U.S. Bank Foundation and involving roughly 15 private-sector backers, to cover as much as $9 million of the line’s operating costs over its first decade, if necessary.

On Dec. 19th, just hours from the FTA deadline, the Cincinnati city council voted 6-3 to resume the project. “We’re going to have a streetcar” Mayor Cranley announced at an afternoon news conference with new Councilman Kevin Flynn, who had spent days helping forge the private financing agreement.

It represented an amazing victory for the broad swath of Cincinnati streetcar supporters, who had turned out by the hundreds to gather many thousands of signatures on the referendum petition. It’s also recognized as a huge victory for rail advocacy and for urban livability, and a terrific model for communities throughout North America.

According to the Cincinnati Business Journal (Dec. 23rd), Work on the project resumes on Dec. 26th, with delivery of an additional set of rails on Elm St., and “The installation of rails will be underway again on Friday, as crews restart their jobs north of Findlay Market.”

More details on this issue are summarized in a recent online article on the Railway Age magazine website:

Cincinnati streetcar survives political turmoil

Another Railway Age article by Urban Rail Today co-principal Lyndon Henry draws a parallel between citizens’ efforts for urban rail in Austin, Texas and those in Cincinnati:

Cincinnati and Austin: Community urban rail proponents challenge City Hall

Atlanta — Streetcar due to open next spring


Simulation of Atlanta's Peachtree St. streetcar. Graphic: Railway Preservation.

Simulation of Atlanta’s Peachtree St. streetcar. Graphic: Railway Preservation.

Atlanta, Georgia — Completion of Atlanta’s streetcar project (called a “loop” because, to provide two-way service, it consists of single-direction lines running on roughly parallel streets that form elongated loops) is just about six months away from its scheduled opening in the spring of 2014, according to an Oct. 14th report in the Atlanta Curbed blog.

As Urban Rail Today reported in the earlier article Atlanta Streetcar construction pushes forward (25 February 2013), the total route of the streetcar starter line is 2.62 miles, with a project cost of about $93 million. It would re-install a tiny fragment of the urban area’s once-extensive network of nearly two dozen urban and several interurban surface electric railway lines, the last of which was scrapped in 1949.

Streetcar trackage under construction in Ellis St., summer 2013. Photo: Central Atlanta Progress.

Streetcar trackage under construction in Ellis St., summer 2013. Photo: Central Atlanta Progress.

Looking to the future … the new modern streetcar line, designed to carry passengers between Centennial Olympic Park and the King Historic District, has 12 station-stops, with headways projected to be 15 minutes between trains. Ridership is projected at 2,600 per weekday.

All rides will be provided for free for the first three months of operation. After that, according to the blog post, fares will initially be just $1.00, “until MARTA upgrades its Breeze Card system to accommodate the light-rail route. Transfers from MARTA will be free.”

According to the project’s executive director, Tim Borchers, construction is now on time (overcoming earlier delays) and $2 million under budget.

Borchers, a streetcar expert from Australia, long respected in the U.S. rail transit industry, is extremely bullish on the potential benefits of the streetcar system. In an interview with Atlanta’s WABE-FM, he assured listeners: “It’s been happening all over the world. Streetcar systems are being used to rebuild decaying urban cores, give a financial boost to cities, relieve traffic, help the environment, and also, of course, provide public transportation.”

How Portland’s light rail trains and buses share a transit mall


LRT train on Portland's 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

LRT train on Portland’s 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

♦ How can both buses and light rail transit (LRT) trains share the same transit-priority paveway or street? There are numerous examples that answer this, but certainly one of the best is in Portland, Oregon — the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls.
Recently, the Austin Rail Now (ARN) blog posted an article focusing on Portland’s transit malls, and because of the more general usefulness of this information for many more communities, we’re re-posting it here with the kind permission of ARN. (It’s also been re-posted by the Light Rail Now blog.)
The opening context for the article is the urban rail planning project currently under way by the City of Austin, Capital Metro (the transit authority), and a transit planning consortium called Project Connect. Transit priority lanes are now being installed on two major downtown north-south streets, and it’s been expected that urban rail trains would share these with buses, including the MetroRapid premium-bus services now being implemented in several major city corridors. However, some transit advocates are noting that these lanes may have insufficient capacity to handle all the bus routes plus MetroRapid, much less adding LRT into the mix.
Portland’s experience thus provides an illustration of how LRT trains and buses can share a priority alignment in a way that works well.

Capital Metro and the City of Austin have a project under way to designate “Transit Priority Lanes” on Guadalupe and Lavaca Streets downtown between Cesar Chavez St. and MLK Jr. Blvd. It’s mainly to expedite operation of the planned new MetroRapid bus services (Routes 801 and 803), but virtually all bus routes running through downtown will also be shifted to these lanes, located on the far-righthand side of traffic on each street (i.e., the righthand curbside lanes).

According to a 2011 study funded by the City of Austin, the Official (City + Project Connect) Urban Rail route is also envisioned to use these lanes downtown. Alternatives to the Official plan have also assumed that these routes would be available for alternative urban rail lines serving the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

However, there are legitimate questions as to whether these two lanes could simultaneously and effectively accommodate the two MetroRapid bus routes (10-minute headways each) plus all other Capital Metro routes (various headways) as well as urban rail (10-minute headway), all running in both directions.

Experience with both light rail transit (LRT) trains and buses sharing the same running way is rare in the USA, but one of the best examples can be seen in Portland, Oregon. For years, 5th and 6th Avenues through the downtown have been used by multiple bus routes as a transit mall, with a single lane provided for general motor vehicle access. In September 2009 LRT was added with the opening of the new Green Line; see: Portland: New Green Line Light Rail Extension Opens.

The integration of LRT with bus service in the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls has worked well. Here’s a brief photo-summary illustrating some of the configurational and operational details.

• Buses and LRT trains share transitway

This illustrates how both bus services and LRT trains share the mall. Tracks, embedded in the pavement, weave from curbside to the second lane over. A third lane is kept open for mixed motor vehicle traffic.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT routes cross

This photo shows how the Green and Yellow LRT lines on the 5th Ave. transit mall cross the Red and Blue LRT lines running on 5th St. You’re looking north on 5th Ave., and just across the tracks in the foreground, the LRT tracks on 5th Ave. weave from the middle of the street over to the curbside, where a station-stop is located. This allows LRT trains to access stations but otherwise pass buses stopped at bus stops on the same street.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

• LRT train leaving station

Here an LRT train has just left the curbside station, following the tracks into the middle lane of the street. This track configuration allows the train to pass a bus boarding passengers at a stop.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT train passing bus

Another train moves to the street center lane and passes the bus stop. Meanwhile, other buses queue up at the street behind.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• Bus bunching

Buses are prone to “bus bunching” (queuing) in high-volume situations because of their smaller capacity, slower operation, slower passenger boarding/deboarding, difficulty adhering to schedule, etc. However, notice how they’re channeled to queue up in a lane off the LRT track.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Can and will Austin and Project Connect planners learn anything about how to create workable Transit Priority Lanes from examples like this? Time will tell…

Getting the streetcar route right in Cincinnati


Another simulation view of the CAF streetcar on order for Cincinnati. Graphic: CincyStreetcar blog.

Another simulation view of the CAF streetcar on order for Cincinnati. Graphic: CincyStreetcar blog .

by John Schneider

An early turning point — there have been many of them — in the long-running effort to build the Cincinnati Streetcar occurred in one of the meetings that evaluated five potential routes. The early consensus favored a straight route on one-way parallel streets anchored by Cincinnati’s convention center, which has been expanded twice in the past thirty years.

Then something remarkable happened. The CEO of Cincinnati’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau stood up and said, “Look, don’t build this for tourists — they are looking for things to do and they will find the streetcar wherever it is. Let’s build this for Cincinnatians.”

So an alternative quickly rose to the top — a diagonal alignment from southeast to northwest across the basin of downtown Cincinnati that puts just about every major destination within a couple of blocks of the line.

What proved to be key is the connection between employment and housing. While Cincinnati is a small city, it is home to a surprising number of large corporations, including Procter & Gamble, Macy’s, and the Kroger Company. There are seven Fortune 500 companies within a couple blocks of the streetcar line.

Most of these companies, their law and accounting firms and other support services are clustered a few blocks north of the Ohio River. Our region’s bus system is concentrated at the center of this agglomeration, and about 20% of downtown workers commute by bus. The streetcar line would end up flowing through the middle of this too.

At the other end of the line is Over-the-Rhine, so-named by German immigrants who compared the river they knew in their homeland to an early Cincinnati canal bordering OTR. Crossing the canal and going downtown was like “going over the Rhine.” And the name stuck.

Once home to perhaps 35,000 residents, OTR’s population dropped to around 5,000 or so in the 1990’s. Mostly vacant but blessed with beautifull (and mostly intact) Italianate townhouses, the neighborhood had been experiencing a slow comeback for several decades but was losing the battle to the elements and parking lots.

It was an obvious match: downtown workers are the best prospects to repopulate a neighborhood near lots of jobs but not really close enough to be walkable by everyone in all weather and at all times of the day. The streetcar solves that problem.

So the route will traverse the one-way couplet of Main and Walnut in the CBD, cross east/west at its midpoint to travel on another couplet, Elm and Race, which bracket Findlay Market, one of the oldest continuously operating public markets in the country. And perhaps the most authentic and diverse place in all of Cincinnati.

What else is along the Cincinnati Streetcar route? Plenty.

Fountain Square is the symbolic heart of our city and a focus of major investment. When the Reds win the World Series again, thousands of Cincinnatians will gather on the Square to celebrate. No one will require an invitation. It will just happen. The streetcar travels along the edge of the Square.

Speaking of the Reds, the Great American Ball Park is located near Stop #1 for the Cincinnati Streetcar. And Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Bengals, is four blocks away. These facilities are co-located in a huge Ohio River redevelopment project now known as The Banks, a billion dollars of new housing, restaurants, hotel and office space.

For 222 years, Cincinnati didn’t have a flood-proof riverfront, the Ohio River having a nasty habit of fluctuating wildly depending on upstream rainfall. As a result, not much could ever happen there. Now it will, because the parking for the teams — eventually to become one of the largest underground parking garages in North America — provides an invisible, floodable pllatform for the development above. The center of The Banks is about four blocks from Fountain Square with an uphill walk, so the streetcar will help bridge the distance and make commercial and hotel development there more promising.

There are other important destinations along the route of the Cincinnati Streetcar:

• Two-thirds of all the major cultural attractions in the Cincinnati region.
• Two new parks, one on the riverfront, the other in Over-the-Rhine.
• Cincinnati’s main library, now the busiest library building in the United States. There is also a historic private library on the line — one of its founders, a U.S. president.
• A new $72-million-dollar K-12 School for the Creative and Performing Arts, the first of its kind in the nation, which was originally established a half-mile away.
• Several new hotels and more in planning plus three large apartment buildings.
• Many bars and restaurants all along the line and more on the way. Cincinnati is getting to be a foodie town.

While the streetcar is mostly associated with Over-the-Rhine, economists estimate that the greatest real estate gains will occur in the north frame of the CBD. Over-the-Rhine is intimate and charming, and that’s why it is cherished by Cincinnatians. But most of the large parcels of land and buildings suitable for re-use as housing are in the “Empty Quarter” of the CBD between Fountain Square and OTR. Except for the Aronoff Center for the Arts, very little happens there nights and weekends. The streetcar will give this area new life.

City officials plan to extend the streetcar up the hill to Uptown area, to the University of Cincinnati with its 42,000 students and to the several hospitals near it. Downtown Cincinnati is the largest employment center in this 2.1-million-person region. Uptown Cincinnati is second.

A long-awaited sight: streetcar construction on Cincinnati's Elm Street. Photo: Travis Estell.

A long-awaited sight: streetcar construction on Cincinnati’s Elm Street. Photo: Travis Estell.

The key takeaway from Cincinnati is diversity of uses — connecting the two largest employment centers in the region with underpopulated historic districts between them, a large and growing public market, plus parks, schools, libraries, hotels and restaurants. When you put it all together, you have the likelihood of the streetcar’s near round-the-clock use almost every day of the week.

The Over-the-Rhine loop of the Cincinnati Streetcar will open for testing in mid-2015, the CBD loop about a year later.

Great things are happening in Cincinnati. Plan to visit soon.

Ed Tennyson: Streetcars use streets more efficiently


lrn_tor-lrt-stc-Rte504-dntn-bdg-pax-20120810-0255-x1_lhToronto streetcar downtown in August 2012. Photo: L. Henry

A recent Toronto poll found that opinions of metro-area respondents were almost evenly split on a plan to ban motor vehicles and allow only streetcars to operate on King Street (one of the downtown’s major thoroughfares) during morning peak hours, with 40% favoring the idea and 43% opposing it. While the plan had overwhelming support in the inner-city, the metro area’s more affluent, conservative suburbs (e.g., Scarborough) tended to oppose it. (Suburban voters have also tended to support conservative Mayor Rob Ford, who promotes policies similar to those of the USA’s Tea Party.)

The poll elicited the following observations and comments from Edson L. Tennyson, a renowned transportation engineer and consultant to the Light Rail Now Project. Ed is widely respected within the North American public transportation industry, having served as manager of several major transit agencies as well as Transportation Engineer for the City of Philadelphia and Deputy Director of Transportation for the State of Pennsylvania.

Without facts the people responding to that poll do not know what they are talking about. Since King Street is in the Old City, what business is it of Scarborough?

Let us look at the facts. A lane of autos waiting at traffic signals can move only 900 passengers per hour, not enough to keep a city busy or healthy. I do not know the streetcar headway, but with 56,700 weekday passengers, it sounds like 4,500 one-way in the peak hour, 5 times auto capacity. With 90 people per 4-axle car, that would require a 1.2-minute headway, 50 cars per hour. With articulated cars, a 1.8-minute headway could handle it.

The point is, who wants to allow 900 [Mayor Rob] Ford supporters to block the movement of 4,500 people per hour? Polls will not move anyone, but those 800 automobiles with 900 people will block 4,500. That is stupid, uneconomical, and grossly unproductive. When gridlock gets bad, transit speed falls to three (3) miles per hour. A streetcar costing $235 per hour will cost $78 per mile at three miles per hour; but at 6 miles per hour, which might be possible with no autos, the streetcar cost falls to $39 per mile, a saving of 50 percent for farepayers and taxpayers. If the media had the integrity and equity to explain it that way, I am sure the polls would change drastically in favor of streetcars.

[Misguided] politicians like Mayor Ford were running the U.S. Congress in 1959 when they banned streetcars from the District of Columbia [i.e., Washington, DC]. They did it to speed auto travel, but it did not work that way. It sped auto travel, all right — away from the city instead if into it.

Back then, Washington’s streetcars were almost as busy as Toronto’s streetcars. They made a profit to subsidize bus service, but they annoyed motorists. Traffic engineers wanted the streetcar lanes for auto left turns, a very low-volume use. Traffic engineers were trained at the Eno Foundation, then subsidized by General Motors. They were required to teach the need to eliminate streetcars.

The last [Washington] streetcar ran in 1962. Buying new buses escalated fares drastically and drove away most riders. Many downtown department stores went out of business. People with good jobs moved out of the city to escape auto congestion caused by automobiles, not streetcars.

From 1948 to 1975, transit use in Washington fell by 72%. The population fell from 750,000 to 590,000. By 1990 the City had so much debt it could not function. Congress had to bail it out, castrating City Council.

By then, MetroRail [rapid transit] was growing large enough to replace the streetcars and greatly reduce bus dependence. Transit increased almost 300% from 1975 to now. The Mayor just announced a tax cut as the city has too much money. The population is growing with higher-income people.

When MetroRail was planned they took a close look at Toronto to get it right. They did. [URT note: Washington, DC’s Department of Transportation has projects under way to re-introduce streetcar service to the city, thus supplementing the Metrorail rapid transit system.]

[This article has been slightly edited from the version first published on the Light Rail Now blog. Thanks to Light Rail Now for their kind permission to re-publish it.]