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Opinion: Let's Fix The Streetcar

Bill Rinehart

The Cincinnati Bell Connector turned 2 on September 9 and opinions differ on its success. The man known as "Mr. Streetcar," John Schneider, says it has met its goals of reinvestment and repopulation downtown. Former City Councilman Kevin Flynn says the problem with that argument is it can't be proven or disproven. Both have written opinion pieces on the success of the streetcar for WVXU and will join Cincinnati Edition on Wednesday, September 12 at 1 p.m. to further discuss their viewpoints. 

Read Kevin Flynn's op-ed here

A reporter recently asked me to give Cincinnati's streetcar a grade. I replied, "B-minus."

In terms of its principal objectives – reinvestment and repopulation – the streetcar gets an "A" as a force-multiplier for strengthening the heart of our region. While 3CDC and others focus on the supply side with new buildings and restaurants, the streetcar works on the demand side as an amenity for better connectivity. It enables car-light living, working and enjoying our resurgent downtown. As center-city parking becomes more expensive and less available, the Cincinnati Bell Connector will be increasingly important for maintaining our hard-won momentum. Street parking in Over-the-Rhine is already being rationed. Sooner or later, more vehicles simply won’t fit into what is essentially a pre-automotive neighborhood. Without new ways of moving people around, progress may eventually stall.

The development community is responding. Today a proposal to build a $28 million, 125-unit apartment building at 8th and Main is working its way through City Hall. It will have only four on-site parking spaces, but there’s a streetcar stop across the street.

In terms of reliably moving people, the streetcar is mediocre – a "C" or worse some days. The causes are well documented and have festered for two years. The tracks have been blocked by cars and trucks about 200 times a month recently, and through early summer, parking enforcement officers were writing only one ticket for every five track violations they observed. Traffic lights are still phased to serve the downtown of a generation ago when almost all jobs were located between 4th and 6th and the highest priority was getting commuters in and out of the Central Business District as quickly as possible. So, the streetcar hits a lot of red lights on its path from Findlay Market to The Banks, and it's slower than it needs to be.

Our Euro-designed streetcars are state-of-the-art. They were the first ones built in the United States. Like any new vehicle, they've had issues, some serious, some not.

Perhaps a more accurate grade for the Connector is "Incomplete." A city engineer recently assured me that the mechanical failure that shut down the Connector for three days last winter is fixed. A long-awaited traffic study is due late this year; it may reveal a path for speeding streetcar travel – and for buses and cars, too. City Council must raise the $50 fine for blocking the tracks and direct city administrators (again) to enforce the law with zero tolerance.

One key metric I'm watching is weekday ridership. Rising weekday ridership would signal the Connector is becoming part and parcel in the everyday life of our city and not just a tourist thing. Like much of our world these days, the problems with the Connector are well known and fixable, but City Hall has lacked the skill or the will to fix them. Now two years and 1.2 million passengers later, city leaders know what needs to be done. They just need to do it.

john schneider
Credit Courtesy John Schneider

John Schneider received undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and public administration from the University of Cincinnati and has been name a Distinguished Alumnus of its College of Arts and Sciences. Now retired, Schneider was Managing Member of First Valley Holdings LLC, a longtime redeveloper of property in and around downtown Cincinnati. He was also a founding board member of Downtown Cincinnati Inc. and served as its first transportation committee chairman. Former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory named Schneider "Mr. Streetcar" for his role in returning passenger rail transit to Cincinnati after a 60-year absence.