Cincinnati Approves Funding for Streetcar, Increasing Likelihood of Federal Commitment

» Initial downtown-Over the Rhine line could begin construction later this year, but Cincinnati faces stiff competition from cities across the country fighting for limited federal funds.

Over the past week, Cincinnati has assembled $86.5 million for its new rail project, leaving it about $40 million away from constructing the first modern streetcar in the Midwest. The infusion of funds from municipal, state, and private sources brings it closer to receiving federal aid for the program. The streetcar was endorsed by voters last fall when they reelected pro-transit Mayor Mark Mallory and simultaneously rejected a local group’s call to block all funding for rail projects in the city.

In approving $64 million in bonds and $2.6 million in direct grants, the city council boosted Cincinnati’s competitiveness for U.S. transit funding dramatically. After the council’s action, Ohio’s Department of Transportation chipped in $15 million; the OKI Regional Council of Governments approved $4 million. Duke Energy, a major local employer, has already pledged $3.5 million to the project as part of a lawsuit settlement.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials have stated repeatedly that the government will give preference to cities that have allocated non-federal funds to transportation projects. The Ohio city has applied for one of the government’s $25 million urban circulator grants, planned for release next month. It will also apply for a TIGER discretionary transportation grant during the summer and may enter its project into the Small Starts capital funding process.

Cincinnati, lacking local funds for the streetcar project until this week, had its $60 million request for a slice of the first phase of the DOT’s TIGER grants refused in February. Dallas, Detroit, New Orleans, Portland, and Tucson, all of which have committed local funding, received federal dollars for their streetcar lines in that process. Among cities that have yet to receive grants from Washington, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Seattle, West Sacramento, and the District of Columbia all have made inroads in assembling revenue from non-federal sources, making them likely candidates for U.S. aid.

Cincinnati’s $128 million project, which would connect the Banks riverfront development with the Uptown district and the University of Cincinnati, now joins that select group.

The proposed streetcar line is expected to attract about daily 4,600 riders, not impossible considering it will run directly through the heart of downtown and its almost 100,000 jobs. The corridor’s preliminary terminus — at the southern extent of the University of Cincinnati — is likely to be a large passenger generator, as is the increasingly gentrifying Over the Rhine neighborhood just north of downtown. The Banks, at the southern end of the route, is a one-billion-dollar redevelopment of former industrial land along the Ohio River that already includes a museum and two stadiums; once it is finished in 2018, it will feature a major park, hundreds of housing units and thousands of square feet of office space.

The area is currently home to a transit center, but it is lightly used except during sports events.

Though downtown Cincinnati is growing, it is not entirely developed; 92 acres there are still used for parking, and plenty of potential building sites are vacant. The streetcar is projected to produce $4 million in additional annual tax revenues because of the new construction it spurs.

If the city isn’t able to assemble all of the necessary funding immediately, it may eliminate the connection to Uptown in the first phase and reduce construction costs to $102 million, though that action would severely limit the system’s effectiveness by eliminating service to the thousands of students at the university.

Nevertheless, thanks to a dedicated mayor and a willing city council, Cincinnati has responded to the federal government’s instructions to allocate local funds to the streetcar project; other cities could learn from its example. The DOT now has a responsibility to follow through with a grant later this year.

35 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • From this map, you can see the problem with those arguing for Union Station for the 3C line – its where it is because that’s the rail line that goes over the river, not because its a destination in its own right.

    • John W

      Presumably they could run it along the proposed commuter line ROW to The Banks Transit Center? But they’d be in a pickle if high-speed service were to be extended south of the city.

      • The Riverfront Transit Center was intentionally designed to not be able to accommodate inter-city trains. The decision had something to do with ensuring freight rail didn’t return to Cincinnati’s riverfront, and those kind of trains use the same grade of track as freight trains. So, the Riverfront Transit Center can only accommodate commuter rail.

        • This source indicates that this is not accurate – and that the actual constraint is not width, but height. Since the 3C will not be using existing Amtrak transcontinental passenger trains, but train sets bought to be used on the line, that does not seem to be a problem.

          The problem is more likely the capacity to both terminate Amtrak trains and run through commuter trains … but that can be addressed if the Amtrak trains do not terminate but rather run through to a siding somewhere on the opposite side.

          • Amtrak is going to run once every four hours, which means it can terminate and reverse direction on a single track. At higher frequencies, two tracks become necessary; the capacity of two intercity terminal tracks is about 6 tph.

            For commuter rail, two tracks are enough, unless there’s a plan to run trains at higher frequency than once every two minutes. If trains don’t run through then four tracks are preferred for 30 tph, but in a crunch two tracks would be enough.

          • Its not supposed to be a terminus for the commuter rail (as, indeed, shown on your map), only for the 3C.

            However, there is one mile of new alignment required to connect the Oasis to the disused line running through the transit center, and it would make a 6 mile bi-directional section that would be shared between Commuter Rail and the 3C.

            The three trains per day is just the starter line – the target frequency when the 3C is completed is eight trains per day. However, any marginal loss of patronage from scheduling around the six miles single track from Lunken Field to the Transit Center would be more than offset by the patronage gain of being central to downtown and right underneath the streetcars.

            Its how much capacity there is to share that with the proposed commuter rail that I would be wondering about. Planning for anything capacity under than 20 minute frequencies in peak would in my view be a mistake, and ideally it should permit 10 minute frequencies.

            If the average transit speed is 30mph, then the 6 mile shared bidi section would be more like 15 minute frequencies without the Intercity.

            A little better if a station halfway along is a double length siding platform allowing both crossover and for commuter trains in both direction to be laid over while the Intercity runs by.

          • Bruce, that website you linked to is nothing more than a glorified blog. I know the author and he has told me that he does not intend for it to be an academic resource (even if that is how it comes across).

            My comments are made from a direct conversation I had with the individual involved with designing the project with Parsons Brickerhoff. The topic came up to make the Riverfront Transit Center capable of holding Amtrak-style trains, but they decided not to. Height is only a concern for the “Superliners” or double-deck trains. The real issue is safety regulations that dictate extra precautions for trains of that magnitude. If the RTC were to be used for Amtrak-style trains, it would have to be majorly upgraded at more than likely a cost-prohibitive price tag.

          • @Randy – I don’t know that I said it was a definitive fact, I said the site “indicates” it. Maybe I should have said, “this site points to newspaper articles that suggest”? It follows the newspaper coverage of the project.

            Of course the newspaper could be wrong – they frequently are.

          • Note that the NIMBY-opposed proposed to put the terminus at the end of the Oasis line would allow for a genuine intermodal … and a siding platform would cut the overlap between the proposed Commuter Rail and the 3C down to about 4 miles.

      • Actually, its the reverse of that. Cincinnati UT was in the Amtrak alternatives analysis (pdf) to the final cut, where it was knocked out due to freight congestion in the stretch south of Sharonville.

        However, NIMBY’s object to the 3C terminating at the Boat House.

        If congestion is a problem on that alignment, it might be better for any Cincinnati / Louisville / Nashville or Cincinnati / Charleston WV / DC Regional HSR route to have the terminal Cincinnati service running on a different alignment, since the 3C route would be the highest frequency under most any scenario.

        An Express HSR would require more substantial heavy freight grade separation, so the question there is less congestion on the corridor than available space in the corridor for two HSR tracks. I would be surprised if there is more unusued room in the existing corridor on the CUT/Longworth alignment, so that would likely entail more eminent domain for an Express HSR system.

        However, looking at the map above, wouldn’t the ideal intermodal terminus for all of the proposed line be just east of the Red’s stadium, where the proposed light rail and commuter rail have already come together and the proposed streetcar extension could make a short diversion before going over the bridge?

        • Nathanael

          To be blunt, if an Express HSR 3C route were constructed, I don’t see any good location for a Cincy terminal. They’d probably have to build something brand new.

    • The current Amtrak trains serving Cincinnati’s Union Terminal actually use the Clade Wade Bridge crossing further east and immediately next to the Brent Spence Bridge which carries I-75 and I-71 automobile traffic across the Ohio River. This existing Amtrak service then continues east to Washington D.C. So I’m not sure the span colored in orange would be needed or used unless of course Cincinnati became a gateway hub to the Southeast with high-speed rail lines going to Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis and the like.

      • I think if you look at Yonah Freemark’s proposed national HSR map, that is exactly the role that Cincinnati serves in the system.

      • Also he has the CUT at the Cincinnati Museum … the Amtrak station is closer to the river, which would not allow the use of the western rail bridge. Since the Cardinal passes both, I presume that is a proposal to relocate the Cincinnati station from the river to the vicinity of the Museum.

        Note that the Oasis line (last used in 1988) is a single track line that ends just west of the two stadiums, and given their role as downtown traffic drivers, whatever local transit corridors are put in ought to be readily extended to connect to the Oasis line. But it would be rigid scheduling if used for a commuter line and a Regional HSR line as well.

        The flip side is that through trains to Indianapolis could not use that station.

        There are a few pictures of some parts of the Oasis alignnment here, partway down the page.

  • Daniel

    Any chance that Cincinnati will ever used that abandoned subway tunnel for light rail? Seems like a no-brainer. It’s even got the stations already constructed.

    • There have been several attempts.

      Each tube is about 15ft high and 13ft high … I wonder what the 3C loading gauge will be … would that give a way to bypass the congestion west of the Museum and get through to downtown?

      • Scratch that last, I hadn’t taken that the turn radius in the subway into account … its a shallow subway, built into the Canal bed, so widening the turn radius would involve eminent domain.

      • It doesn’t really matter what the 3C loading gauge is, since intercity diesel trains will not run in a subway tunnel.

        • Of course intercity trains can run at the frequency of three to eight times per day in a two mile long tunnel.

          There of course cannot be stations in the tunnel, so it couldn’t be shared with local transit that would want to use the three stations … but proposals to use the subway tunnels for local transit keep failing to go anywhere anyway.

          • They can, but it may not be advisable, especially if people are going to use the tunnel for local transit.

          • What does the use of the tunnel for local transit have to do with the Cincinnati subway? Its never in its entire history been used for local transit.

            Of course, with the Streetcar, it could be put to use for a Rapid Streetcar extension, if there is room in the corridor north of there for separate light rail track to be laid.

    • Daniel:

      Yes, there is the ability to use the existing subway tunnels for future light rail service. In fact, the 2002 MetroMoves campaign called for just that, and subsequent studies have shown the tunnels’ value for future rail service.

      The tunnels are quite small, but can hold modern light rail rolling stock much like the tunnels in St. Louis. The issue in Cincinnati would be that the light rail vehicles would be limited to a fairly short length due to small station lengths in the subway tunnels.

      • Then why not use them for Rapid Streetcars … run from the streetcar system onto the dedicated system through the tunnels. If the low height of the Rapid Streetcar platforms was a concern, they could install those automatic sliding “window doors” like at the Atlanta airport train.

        Further north, it could switch between dedicated track in space in existing corridors … and streetcar sections to local inner suburban centers.

        And some of the overheads of the kind of single-line light rail system would be lower if it was an extension of a system that is already in place.

        • Urban circulators function differently from rapid transit. The two are both valuable for their own purposes, but they do have separate functions. The purpose you’re suggesting would be better suited for light rail and commuting needs, while the proposed Cincinnati Streetcar seems better suited for circulating people about in the urban core.

          • Except this is a model that is used with substantial real world success in Germany.

            Urban circulator and mass transit are categories we impose on transport, but where a large number of “mass transit” commuters will be using a “circulator” to complete their commute, then in terms of transport task they are both serving the same transport task.

            Where the Rapid Streetcar (or “tram-train”) can really excel is in attracting off-peak patronage, since its a single seat ride from the suburban station through the heart of downtown.

  • Ocean Railroader

    They could build the bran new streetcars to fit into the old subway tunnel. They are building the streetcars from scrach.

  • simple

    “…first modern streetcar in the Midwest”

    When did Kenosha Wisconsin, and its modern streetcar, cease to be in the Midwest?! :-)

  • poncho

    whats with that complicated route? why cant we build streetcars today with a simple route on one street for both directions? whats with routing a streetcar to hit the front door of every point of interest in a neighborhood, zigzagging over to this, then zigzagging back to that, etc. theyve managed to make the streetcar line have as complex a route as your typical bus line, hardly the user friendly system that the streetcar is supposed to be. why not make it easy to remember and have it run almost entirely on vine street from end to end, both directions?

    • Its actually not “every” point, its Findlay Market. Going near but not directly past Findlay Market and the complex wrap-around would go away.

      Whether a streetcar goes up and down one street or up one street and down the next street to the west is six of one, half a dozen of the other … people get used to it very quickly. After all, destinations are not in the middle of streets, they are in the middle of blocks.

    • Eric G.

      It’s the way that computerized transport modelling works. The inputs dictate the outputs and most models contain steep penalties for walking distance, so if you have a potentially large trip generator, the number of trips actually generated in the model will vary widely if you move the route away by a few blocks. Now that cost-effectiveness has lost some power over federal allocations I would expect to see a bit less of that, but ridership estimates will still be very important and unfortunately engineers often have a hard time accepting common sense over what the computer says.
      I was evaluating the Ft. Lauderdale streetcar project in a previous job and the PB consultants kept saying that the route had to veer one block over to directly serve the Broward Transit Center. This added a couple turns in the track with associated cost, noise issues and delay, screwed up the auto, paratransit and shuttle drop off area, caused additional delay on a major arterial and it got people only 400 feet closer to thier bus connections. The model said that it would increase streetcar ridership by thousands of trips. I challenged that because the distance people have to walk when connecting buses from one end of the Terminal to the other can be up to 800 feet. Alas, to deaf ears. The models currently being used tell us a lot of stupid things, and people really need to be checking those outputs against common sense and forcing engineers to correct thier input assumptions to match reality.

      • Ocean Railroader

        I do noice some of these strange planning models do put some of the streetcars in some very strange places. Maybe they should try to offer open polls among the public to see what they would think would be the best streetcar line?

      • Nathanael

        Oy. That’s a horrible story. Hey, did you propose “expanding” the Brouward Transit Center by building a covered walkway along the intervening block? :-) Then, presto, the streetcar stops in front of the Transit Center, and their model will say it’s lovely ;-)

      • “It’s the way that computerized transport modelling works. The inputs dictate the outputs and most models contain steep penalties for walking distance, so if you have a potentially large trip generator, the number of trips actually generated in the model will vary widely if you move the route away by a few blocks.”

        Quite. The thing about the penalties for walking distance is that they do not seem to be calibrated against the existing average walk. That is, you have a massive trip generator, and sometimes people will be willing to park a ways away … and yet a stop that some of them would be walking past is considered “to far to go”. They seem to be calibrated against some kind of “average” condition rather than the actual amount of active transport that the actual users of a streetcar would be used to.

        And after looking at it, I gotta agree that instead of that complex overlapping section between Gateway Quarter and Findlay market, the northern leg should go straight up Vine. The shorter travel time and elimination of crossovers would make up for the short side of a block walk either to or from Findlay Market.

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