Cincinnati Streetcar

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.