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Council Debates Proposal To Make Streetcar Rides Free

Jay Hanselman

A couple of Cincinnati council members are again raising the issue of eliminating streetcar fares as the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) says it needs a little more than $4 million for operations during the fiscal year starting July 1.
The transit agency presented its spending plan Monday to a city council committee.

Council Member Chris Seelbach says free fares could solve some of the problems for the system "because we would increase ridership, drive demand for ad revenue, and see the streetcar being used as a transportation tool and not just an economic development tool."

Council Member Greg Landsman says streetcar service must first be reliable before making fares free. He compares Cincinnati's system to the one in Kansas City, Mo.

"They are hitting their headways in Kansas City 90 percent of the time," he says. "As I understand it, we're hitting our headways 40 percent of the time. Until we get that number up to 90, which we will do, I think making it free is very problematic. However, when we get our headways up to 90, making it free makes all the sense in the world."

A headway is the average interval of time between streetcars.

SORTA estimates it will collect about $406,000 in streetcar fare revenue in the next fiscal year, but it will spend about $170,000 for equipment and support fees to collect those fares.

Meanwhile, the agency is not recommending any schedule changes.

SORTA representatives say they reviewed data in the decision not to change service times during weekdays and on weekends.  

Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld suggests delaying the start of service during weekdays to provide more cars during peak times.

"I am 100 percent convinced that stuff could be shaved from the front end to be redeployed or reallocated in a more high-valued time," Sittenfeld says.

Right now, only three of the city's five streetcars can operate at one time. One vehicle has been out of service since January waiting on repairs from an accident, and one is always left as a backup if another experiences a problem.  

City council must approve an operating budget for the streetcar before the end of June.

Council may have some choices to make because officials say without changes, the streetcar operating fund will have a negative balance starting in 2019.  

City budget officials say this will require additional revenues or reducing costs to balance the streetcar budget.

Jay Hanselman brings more than 10 years experience as a news anchor and reporter to 91.7 WVXU. He came to WVXU from WNKU, where he hosted the local broadcast of All Things Considered. Hanselman has been recognized for his reporting by the Kentucky AP Broadcasters Association, the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and the Ohio AP Broadcasters.