» 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.