Cincinnati's Riverfront Transit Center Attracts Criticism

Cincinnati Future Transit Map

Project, completed in 2003, serves no regular purpose; future riverfront activity and a streetcar, however, could spur more use.

After losing a major initiative to expand rapid transit in Cincinnati, city leaders put together a $23 million waterfront transit center, which was built to serve the city’s two stadiums and a museum. Now, after five years of inactivity, some are questioning the underground complex’s value for the city. The perception that previous transit investments were undertaken poorly could ring a death knell for the construction of a new streetcar system that Cincinnati is currently considering.

Parallel to and a few blocks from the riverfront, the transit center is more like a tunneled roadway with parking spaces than a full-out station. The facility was constructed in conjunction with the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Great American Ball Park, and Paul Brown Stadium, each of which is located on the thin land strip between the Ohio River and I-71. Newport, Kentucky is located on the other side of the river and downtown Cincinnati is on the other side of the depressed highway. The city has been planning a major redevelopment of the areas near the river, including a decking over of the freeway with public parks, improving the connection to downtown. The transit center should have made it easier for everyone to get to these major facilities via public transportation.

If the MetroMoves referendum had succeeded in 2002, the Cincinnati region could have raised $2.6 billion over thirty years to construct a 60-mile light rail system, whose principal transfer point would have been in the transit center near the waterfront. Lines would have extended in all directions, including through a renovated abandoned subway running from downtown northwest, and south into Kentucky. Unfortunately, a full 70% of voters came out against the plan, leaving the transit center pointless.

As a result, as former mayor and congressman Tom Luken sees it, the center is a “white elephant” that is rarely used. Though the city considers the facility an asset because it makes parking buses for sports events more simple, Mr. Luken is right in that thus far, the facility’s value has been limited at best. The project is so underused, in fact, that it is closed most days according to Queen City Discovery, and it is aging quickly from lack of continuous maintenance. Will the transit center become Cincinnati’s second forgotten subway? Or does development in the waterfront zone mean a potential for a worthwhile future?

The waterfront’s success hinges on that of the city as a whole. Cincinnati’s population is about 3/5 of its 1950 peak, but for the first time since that year, in 2008, the U.S. Census found that the city has increased in population — by 2,000 people since 2000. As a result, the city may be on the way up, especially considering the continued strength of its downtown and the renaissance being experienced in the Over-the-Rhine district. This means that the waterfront district — known as “The Banks” — may be able to attract developers as the economy improves and transform what is currently a partially empty zone into a vital artery.

If those few city blocks are built up and if the connection to downtown is improved through the erection of parks over I-71, the transit center would have a new role in serving commuters to and from the area via bus. It’s easy to envision that a neighborhood offering thousands of jobs and residential units will need improved transportation. After the stunning defeat of the light rail plan in 2002, no similar proposal is likely to be raised by politicians in the area for quite some time, meaning that the center will only be serving buses for quite some time.

But Cincinnati is planning a major transit investment that could improve the fortunes of the neighborhood more quickly: a streetcar connecting downtown with Uptown and the University of Cincinnati, illustrated in the map above. A version of this line was the smallest element of the 2002 MetroMoves campaign. The line, which could be built for $185 million, could act as an economic generator along the route, which touches the city’s primary urban areas. The city estimates a daily ridership of 4,600. A project manager has been named, leading credence to the idea that this project might actually come through.

The streetcar’s terminus at the waterfront could make the zone particularly attractive to developers.

Yet hurdles remain. The local NAACP has been pushing strongly against the project, and recently announced that it had enough signatures to force a petition on the ballot that would prevent the city from undertaking rail construction without the prior consent of the voters. The organization argues that the streetcar is a distraction from Cincinnati’s more pressing needs, including its existing bus system. If the NAACP’s referendum passes this fall, there will be little hope for the streetcar in the near future.

If former Mayor Luken continues to push the idea that the city is a poor manager of its transportation spending by highlighting the case of the transit center, the population could come out against any further transit plans, dooming even this lightly priced line. It is politically damaging to spend tens of millions of municipal dollars on a project without any real use; in these circumstances, thoughtful voters aren’t likely to easily vote in favor of more investment in public transportation.

But if the streetcar project pulls through, it could be a boon for the neighborhoods along its route, and it would encourage “choice” riders to move away from their cars. Its completion, though, won’t solve the problems of the transit center, which will remain mostly unutilized since the streetcars will run on the surface; the city will have to continue to maintain a facility with limited use.

The 2002 light rail plan, which centered on the waterfront, should be raised once again, no matter the political consequences. Downtown Cincinnati has almost 100,000 jobs and the metro region as a whole now has about 2.2 million inhabitants and is growing quickly; Southwest Ohio deserves better transit connections. A new streetcar may be the best the city can get for now, but it’s only a start. A full-scale transit system, serving many parts of the city, should follow. The empty riverfront transit center would be a good place for the network’s core.

15 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Jake

    Cincinnati is HORRIBLE when it comes to transportation. Public trans in the area is pathetic. Cincinnati is one of the largest cities in the United States without rail transit.

    I live in Northern Kentucky, right across the river from Cincinnati.
    I sure hope that the streetcar passes. At least it’s a start.

  • Misanthrope

    Note: Apparently from the language of this bill as explained in the comment section of the Cincinnati-based newspaper this was published in, this bill if passed wouldn’t just block the streetcars. It would require city voter approval before any rail project would be initiated inside the Cincinnati city limits. That means slowdowns to and Midwest Chicago Hub network and to any cross-Ohio proposal. There’s a lot more at risk from this proposal than just one streetcar line.

  • Jake

    Exactly. And this would make Cincinnati one of the last candidates for a station in the Midwest HSR Initiative, at least I think so. I could see them putting a station just outside the city limits, or across the river. Or just totally skipping Cincy. And I don’t blame them.

  • AlexB

    I checked out the link for the map of the proposed system that didn’t pass. It looked very comprehensive and well designed. It even had a cross town light rail line. Take that, Portland! Maybe it was too much too soon for such a conservative, car dependent town? This is southern Ohio/Kentucky we’re talking about. A cute little streetcar for a few million serving downtown, the river and the ballpark seems like a more appropriate start for a city like this; although, I wish it weren’t so.

  • Louis Alvarez

    The white-elephant syndrome is a curse to anyone arguing for investment in transit infrastructure. Milwaukee built a similar lakeside bus center a decade ago that is a mile east of any major traffic-generators. It’s basically closed to the public these days and serves mostly to turn around downtown runs.

  • Jake

    AlexB,

    Are you talking about the MetroMoves plan from 2002?

    And I think that Light Rail would be best, not streetcar (I do support streetcar, though). Here’s why…
    Light Rail would extend much farther than the streetcar and hit the suburbs where so many commuters come from. It would be better to draw businesses downtown because people in the burbs would have a better commute to downtown. I live in Northern Kentucky, in Erlanger, about 20 minutes from Cincy. If we put in a streetcar, I would love it. But I’m still going to just drive to Cincinnati. The farthest the streetcar is planned is into Covington. Why would I drive 15 minutes to Cov, park my car, get on the streetcar, and then go to Cincy? That’s a waste of time.
    I love the streetcar idea, it will stimulate the downtown a LOT. When people do go downtown they could truly make an easy-going day out of it by using the streetcar. But I think HUGE numbers of people would come to downtown/OTR/Covington/Newport if there was light rail.

    In short… Light Rail=much bigger and better impact economically and environmentally.

    Sorry, I think I rambled a bit.

  • political_incorrectness

    What does the NAACP have against the street car line? Is it good old NIMBYISM? Why is there so much anti-rail? That is backwards development and a 1950s attitude that must cease if they want to become a good spot on the Midwest map.

  • From what I understand of Cincinnati politics (my partner is from the region originally), the local NAACP is rather unusually tied to a number of conservative and corporate groups, and a lot of the local black community resents both this and the personality of the local president.

    That said, it’s a shame that the light rail plan didn’t advance. The Cincinnati region has a lot in common with Portland, likenesses that could have been further realized if the 2002 plan had come to fruition.

  • AlexB

    Jake, looking at the MetroMoves plan, it appears that there would have been 5 light rail lines, 3 commuter rail lines and one streetcar line. Two of the light rail lines stop at a station called Covington. Is there something I’m missing?

  • Jake

    Alex,
    My question about the whether or not you were talking about MetroMoves in your previous post was separate from my post after that. Sorry for the confusion.
    I know that MetroMoves had all of that. And I’m saying that MetroMoves would have been MUCH better than what we have to settle for now. I love the streetcar, but MM would have been incredible.
    Sorry about that

  • AlexB

    Right on Jake.

  • Chris

    The thing about the MetroMoves Plan was that it it failed by 2 to 1 in the county of Hamilton as a whole. The votes from the city proper were for it at a similar margin.

    Also the initial streetcar system would only serve downtown and Over the Rhine. The ridership quoted in the article is for just this part of the loop, costing $102 million. The total expanded system, pictured in the article, would cost the $185 million quoted. The downtown loop has already been studied but I don’t think the connections to the University and Zoo have been.
    Studies done on the streetcar loop can be found at
    http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/noncms/projects/streetcar/streetcar_links.cfm

  • JTaylor

    Cincinnati never seems to break away from the, “Little Town” syndrome, much like Louisville nearby, where most of the money and power supports suburbs more than inner city projects. This country has some of the poorest transportation I have ever seen. If you choose not to drive a car you are stuck in one spot. America needs to get on board, and do something about the lack of alternative transportation.

  • v

    I have lived here in Cincinnati for 11 years now and have maybe been downtown 3 times-just for games. The one place that everyone that I had met that had lived here there whole life said to never go was Over the Rhine. It is one of, if not the most, unsafe place in all of Cincinnati. Why in the world would anyone plan to place that system right smack in the middle of that area? Do we not think that the druggies, gangs and prostitutes are going to use it? I know that’s exactly what I would like to ride next to if I were visiting this city. How about the parents who are sending their kids to UC? Yeah sure honey, take the rail system to the ballgame-the scenery is great along the way…Just be sure to take your bullet proof vest and don’t speak to the man selling drugs or the prostitue beside of him. I should think that Cincinnati already has money set aside for the cops who are going to ride along. Besides, who can afford to buy anything at the stores downtown. The only attractions are the games and the zoo. Someone needs to rethink this gazillion dollar plan.

    • AJ Knee

      Over-the-Rhine is nowhere near the most dangerous neighborhood in the city. It suffers from a very bad reputation, but things have changed dramatically since the riots cleared the neighborhood out. The new Over-the-Rhine and the streetcar will have an amazing synergy.

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