Cincinnati recently welcomed a hard-won renaissance of streetcar service – and hopes are high it will precipitate a downtown revival. Herbert Pence and Hans Retallick relate the full story for TAUT.
Friday 9 September 2016 was a day for celebration in the US Midwest city of Cincinnati. As much as the cheering from the assembled crowds was for the new Cincinnati Bell Connector service, it was also a cry of relief for long-time streetcar supporters whose project survived ballot referenda, political roadblocks and budgetary challenges.
Whilst the day itself was overcast, the mood at Washington Park was brightened by the first appearance of a sleek new CAF low-floor vehicle wrapped in the blue, green and white colours of the project’s sponsor to proclaim ‘Cincinnati Bell Connector’.
The streetcar stood on Elm Street, between the 1877-built Music Hall and hundreds of people cheering the launch of city rail service, after a 65-year hiatus. It was on 29 April 1951 that the last orange and cream Cincinnati Street Railway streetcar entered the Brighton Car House, ending local rail passenger service that had begun in 1859.
Cincinnati’s streetcar history
Cincinnati has a long and distinguished association with streetcars. By the 1850s it was the sixth-largest city in the USA with a population of 115 000. The population density during this period was one of the highest in the country, and was only exceeded by Manhattan in 1900.
The natural barriers of the Ohio River, the swampy Mill Creek Valley and the steep hillsides to the north and east of the city prevented a lot of development outside the downtown area.
There was, however, a great desire to move outside the downtown area which led to the early establishment of horse streetcar lines, the first of which was opened in 1859 by the Cincinnati Street Railroad Company. This initial line was the pioneer for a number of small operators, often with just one line each. The first Northern Kentucky line crossed the new suspension bridge to Covington upon its completion in the 1860s. Consolidation followed, with a number of lines being merged into the Cincinnati Street Railway Company, which used a new standard gauge of 5ft 2½in (1587mm) to satisfy the City Council’s requirement to use a gauge other than railroad standard (4ft 8½in) to avoid steam trains from using streetcar tracks to access the city centre.
In the 1870s came the first of Cincinnati’s five inclined plane railways that were to form part of the streetcar system for many years in scaling the many hillsides. After the construction of three cable car routes and a brief flirtation with steam traction, the first electric service began in 1888 – one of the peculiarities of the system was that as so many horse lines existed, and no rails were bonded, they couldn’t be used for the return current, so twin overhead wires were used. Cincinnati became one of few cities in the world using double wire for its street railway; others included Havana, Cuba, and Tokyo, Japan. This became the standard for all lines within the city limits after an injunction which came from a lawsuit filed by the telephone company.
In 1896 came the final consolidation of a number of companies – except for the Northern Kentucky and Vine Street lines – into the Cincinnati Street Railway, which leased all of its property to the Cincinnati Traction Company to operate and maintain.
By the 1910s most of the lines had been built, including large interurban networks in many directions, and in the 1920s there was a major programme of infrastructure investment. Peak ridership for the network was nearly 100m in 1929, but the effects of the Great Depression saw a dramatic fall in these numbers. In 1936 the first trolleybus line opened – the overhead was already in place with the dual-wire system, and the vehicles were fast and quiet, leading to two lines being converted before World War Two.
During this period, Cincinnati also tried PCC cars and ordered one each from Pullman-Standard, Briliner and St Louis, the latter being chosen to supply further examples in 1939 and 1945. In the 1940s, the private car became the dominant means of transport, as it did across much of the nation, and there was a big push to abandon the streetcars that were seen to impede the flow of traffic. Although most of the streetcar system was still in use by the end of the war, there was a major programme to convert routes to trolleybus service. When the last streetcar ran in 1951, the 51 PCC car roster – some only six years old – were sold to Toronto.
For the remainder of the 20th Century, the private car ruled the city. The trolleybus system had closed by June 1965, and the last incline, to the top of Mount Adams, closed in 1948 in the light of costly repairs becoming necessary. It is interesting to note that at the time of its closure, this incline was the city’s top tourist attraction.
Passengers jammed the loading platforms on 9 September. In the city centre, lines of intending passengers snaked off the platforms and onto the adjacent sidewalks; two women interviewed for the local TV news station reported waiting for 90 minutes for their first ride. Grandparents, with children in hand, shared a generational experience. Certainly some of the elders remembered riding the original streetcar system to work, for pleasure and off to school; now it was their grandchildren’s opportunity to begin their own 21st Century familiarity. Ridership for the three-day free ride period was reported as 50 646. Ridership has settled in the following weeks at about 4500 per day.
The dedication ceremonies were held in Washington Park, at the route’s centre. Master of Ceremonies, Councilwoman Amy Murray, opened the proceedings by speaking of the renaissance of Over-The-Rhine (OTR) and the downtown core. She recognised selected attendees, especially Earl Clark, 93, who rode the last streetcar; Mr Clark is internationally respected for his knowledge of streetcar and interurban services.
Appropriately, streetcar advocate John Schneider was the first speaker. He spoke of the first shovelful of dirt being turned four-and-a-half years previously and thanked those who stood by him throughout the struggles to make the streetcar a reality.
He was followed by Mayor John Cranley who had previously opposed the streetcar, trying to transfer the project’s funding to a motorway interchange reconstruction. Mayor Cranley’s comments were gracious, giving credit to former Mayors Mark Mallory and Roxanne Qualls and also John Schneider. Former Mayor Mallory was also on hand to thank the Federal Government, especially President Barack Obama, for the required funding to establish the new line. In the previous election, Mallory was term-limited so could not stand for re-election.
Ted Torbeck, CEO of dominant local telecommunications provider – and now also sustainable energy supplier – Cincinnati Bell spoke of his company’s job to connect people, just as the Cincinnati Bell Connector now does in a more physical sense. Cincinnati Bell’s operational contribution, sourced just before the opening and which saw the system rebranded into the company’s green and blue corporate livery, promises USD340 000 in sponsorship annually for ten years.
Finally, Eric Avner, Vice President of the Haile/US Bank Foundation spoke. The Foundation committed USD9m to underwrite the streetcar for ten years; this came at a critical time when the system’s future lay in the balance. Without it, no flanged wheels would be turning in the city.
With that, a confetti-fuelled explosion signalled time to depart. Car 1177, with attendees wishing to be on the first service, pulled away from the Music Hall stop.
The local newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer was restrained in its coverage.
Whilst for three days it gave front page space to the streetcar and pages of text, the paper withheld the cheerleading one would expect for such an event. One car was temporarily out of service for a warranty brake problem, but even so the newspaper gave this minor maintenance issue eight column inches.
As is the case for so many US cities that have made the move to light rail, the Cincinnati Bell Connector is seen as a catalyst for
change in the neighbourhoods in which it runs. Studies have shown that the population in the inner city areas covered by the new system has fallen significantly with 200 000
fewer people living in the city since 1950, with many districts subsequently falling into decay as residents moved away – coincidentally since the original streetcar system was abandoned.
As such the new streetcar is seen as a precipitator of long-term change. Supporters already note property value increases and the impact of redevelopment, with reports of speculative purchases and renovations of buildings along the route, but the city has not created a benchmark by which to evaluate this success. That said, The Cincinnati Enquirer performed an analysis of 750 properties along the line and established a value of
Indeed, after a period of suspicion many residents and business owners alike are beginning to realise the positive contribution the streetcar can make to the city. With a real sense of excitement about the benefits of the new system, one business owner told the local USA Today news outlet: “I heard story after story about how once the city obtained fixed rail, people planned to drop to one vehicle or forego a vehicle altogether. Many talked about the great networking the new-found density of population has brought and how all of a sudden there was a real sense of community.
“That community saw the streetcar as its way to put the city’s urban core back on the map and show the country that Cincinnati is progressing… it is our hope to one day see the streetcar reach all areas of our city”.
A hard-won return
Despite such high hopes for a promising future, the return of the streetcar has taken some time, with the use of rail in Cincinnati’s urban mix long lurking in the background.
A hundred years ago a major subway plan was mooted, its primary goal to intercept interurban lines approaching the city and provide a quick route into the central core. Capital financing was available prior to the Great War, which brought construction to a halt ‘for the duration.’ Following the hostilities, inflation ravaged the construction budget and spider web-like highways drained interurban ridership, triggering abandonments. By the late 1920s the subway was partially completed, enough to cause continuing interest in how it could be put to use. For decades, Sunday supplements and college projects periodically brought the ‘hole in the ground’ back into the public consciousness.
In 1993, the regional planning commission proposed light rail lines radiating from the city to suburban locations much like the interurban network of 70 years ago. A more concrete proposal had an LRT route connecting the suburban Blue Ash Airport with the downtown. Eager supporters envisioned the line crossing the Ohio River into Kentucky, extending to the Greater Cincinnati Airport (CVG). Little progress was made with such proposals.
Further discussions of a modern light rail system began in 2001, when experiences in the city of Portland showed the potential of the streetcar for tackling the problems of urban decay in inner-city areas. Cincinnati had a serious problem in this regard, in particular in the Over-the-Rhine district – an area straight out of the old country with breweries, sausage factories and buildings modelled on the styles echoed from Germany, but which has deteriorated into a semi-slum since the 1960s.
For the next three years, transit supporters pushed against unrelenting reluctance from traditional anti-rail Republicans, when into the fray stepped Mark Mallory, elected as Mayor in 2005. Within three months a proposal was made to build a line from the downtown area up one of the city’s seven hills, past the 40 000-student university and to the Cincinnati Zoo. Mayor Mallory jumped on this idea to become his leadership legacy and under his guidance a longer line was proposed in 2008, but this was truncated into the present 5.8km (3.6-mile) route when USD52m in Federal funding was returned.
A new deal was put together for an urban circulator with an extension to the river which attracted TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant funding. The new mayor stopped the project in 2013, but a huge swell of local support saw it restarted and construction began again on the new standard-gauge line, which is largely set to a figure-of-eight pattern with uni-directional services running on parallel streets. Finance was acquired from a variety of sources, with almost USD16m coming from TIGER, Federal Transit Administration grants of USD25m and a CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program) grant of USD4m. The City contributed a further USD87m, with USD11m plus a further USD15m to come from the sale of part of the Blue Ash airfield that closed in 2012. Plans for the streetcar’s renaissance were back on track.
The City owns the line, infrastructure and rolling stock and contracts with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) to be the operator of bus services, as well as the Cincinnati Bell Connector. SORTA, in turn, subcontracts to multinational operator Transdev for Connector operations. There are 26 employees, with most of the operators (drivers) being former bus drivers in the city. Many of the systems used for the streetcar operation are common to the city’s buses, such as ticketing, fare structure and the ‘Bus Detective’ app that locates all of the city’s vehicles in real-time.
The streetcars themselves are part of the same batch ordered by Kansas City (read more about this project in TAUT 946), and are the first 100% low-floor trams in the USA. There are five 23.6m three-section CAF Urbos trams in Cincinnati and, as in Kansas City, their fleet numbers follow on from the last vehicles delivered to the first-generation system. They were delivered between October 2015 and May 2016 and have been extensively tested with a 500km (310-mile) ‘burn in’, of which the last 100km (62 miles) has to be defect-free before they are passed for passenger service. They are fitted with a GPS activated auto-lubrication system to minimise wheel squeal.
The two-road depot, located near the famous Findlay Market, is a new building equipped to deal with any maintenance issues. There is an underfloor wheel lathe and a mezzanine level that provides access to the vehicles’ roof-mounted equipment. Electrical supply across the system is by means of three 1Mw substations that deliver a 750V dc feed to the vehicles; the rather elegant traction poles are coloured black with silver bracket arms.
After leaving the depot, the line heads south on Race Street, passing the historic Findlay Market and Washington Park, crossing the return line at Twelfth Street before turning east onto Central Parkway. At Walnut, the line turns south again, past Fountain Square and Government Square and taking the streetcar right into the heart of the business district and very close to the Ohio River, before turning east onto Second Street and immediately North onto Main Street.
At Twelfth Street, the line turns west and after the Race crossing, takes a right to go northbound past the other side of Washington Park in the heart of the Over-the-Rhine (OTR) district. After passing the western side of Findlay Market, the line turns east again onto Henry before turning south onto Race around the northern perimeter of the depot to complete the loop. All of the route is single track as it is mostly on one-way streets, and offers a strong connection between OTR and downtown, with around 70 000 people employed in this area.
The route operates 18 hours per day and 365 days a year. Each of the 18 stops has a shelter with a system plan and an electronic next car display, as well as a bi-lingual ticket vending machine. Tickets cost USD1 for two hours and USD2 for a day ticket, and must be validated before use. Metro bus tickets are transferable to the streetcar and include the one-day or 30-day passes and transfer fares. Tickets can also be purchased by means of the Android or iOS Cincy EZRide app. Reductions are in place for children based on their height.
Hours of operation are Monday-Thursday 06.30-0.00, Friday 06.30-01.00, Saturday 08.00-01.00, Sunday and holidays 09.00-23.00, and frequencies are every 12 minutes Monday-Friday 11.00-19.00 and every 15 minutes at all other times. In the first few days of operation, the service struggled to maintain these frequencies, and plans are in hand to adjust to the traffic signal system in the Downtown area to improve matters.
Where next for the streetcar?
So with the first line open, what does the future hold? Fledgling proposals have been put forward by a group of residents, business leaders and elected officials known as the Northern Kentucky Streetcar Committee to cross the Ohio River via the Taylor-Southgate Bridge into neighbouring Newport in Northern Kentucky. More ambitious objectives include a southward projection further into Covington and perhaps even a route through Fort Mitchell to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
But this initial line has to prove itself first as some doubters remain. If it can maintain the success shown in its first weeks then extensions will become more and more viable possibilities. Only time will tell, but the initial signs are very positive.