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Cincinnati — Rail Transit on its Way Back With Streetcar Project

Updated on January 16, 2012
Simulation of Cincinnati streetcar running northbound on Main St.
Simulation of Cincinnati streetcar running northbound on Main St. | Source
Streetcar starter line map
Streetcar starter line map | Source


Did you know that Cincinnati has a subway? Yep — 2.2 miles of it, bought and paid for, and never used! (Instead of buying rapid transit cars to run in it, the city decided to put its money into building boulevards and freeways for the motor age, instead.)

But Cincy did have surface rail transit — an electric streetcar network that extended up to 222 track-miles throughout the metro area, running hundreds of efficient, user-friendly streetcars. Once the mainstay of urban Cincinnati's mobility system (with sizable stretches on private right-of-way), the last remnants of that massive network of lines were scrapped in 1951. The electric wires were dismantled, the tracks were paved over, and those private rights-of-way were converted to ... you guessed it: more roads!

Now, in the 21st century, choked by traffic congestion and parking problems, Cincinnati is taking itself back to the future with a small but crucial investment in a modern electric streetcar line that just got re-approved by 52% of voters in a ballot this past November 8th (2011). (Re-approved, because the project had already been okayed in a public vote two years before. But rail opponents forced a re-vote — it's a long story....)

Anyway, after decades of agonizing, wrangling, political wrestling, and planning, at long, long last Cincinnati is moving ahead to install a modern electric streetcar line serving the urban core. (It's an approximately 1.5-mile-long route, 1.5 miles in each direction in an elongated north-south loop totaling 3 miles — see map at right.)

Envisioned as the first phase of an eventual citywide system, this starter line will connect Downtown to Findlay Market and the Over-the-Rhine Historic District, linking a number of major activity points.

• Government Square

• Fountain Square

• Contemporary Arts Center

• Public Library

• Aronoff Center

• Horseshoe Casino

• Gateway Quarter

• School for the Creative and Performing Arts

• Music Hall

• Washington Park

The total project cost for this first segment is estimated at $95 million, plus the cost of relocating subsurface utilities. In addition to local public financing, funding is provided by a $25 million Federal Urban Circulator Grant and $6.5 million in private funding.

The line's annual operating cost is projected at $2.5 million, covered by fare revenue plus funding from casino revenue, parking meters, and sponsorship of stations.

In its first year of operation, the planners forecast that the streetcar service will attract 3,700 rider-trips per weekday. (It's small, but it's a start....)

In addition to providing residents with better access to the bus system, the new system is projected to create denser, mixed-use development. And, particularly oriented to a core-area population that's less reliant on personal motor vehicles, the streetcar line is expected to "reinforce the walkability of the City", according to Cincinnati's Web information on the project.

Planners also expect impressive new economic development from this major public investment, including the development of numerous new businesses along the tracks "because owners can count on a steady stream of customers to pass by each day." In contrast, says the City's website, "Buses and other transportation-oriented investments don't have a proven record of attracting such an influx of business."

The project is also expected to boost local efforts to renovate run-down sections of the central city. An economic study identified more than 500 vacant buildings in Cincinnati's historic but dilapidated Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. These buildings are slated for rehab as the streetcar project advances and is expected to help attract residents and businesses into the rehabbed facilities.

The construction project itself is also expected to create jobs. Planners predict that over 300 workers will be needed to build the starter line alone ... and many more in the future as the system is extended.

Hopefully, this small starter line will represent the first step in a renewed and much more enduring friendship between Cincinnatians and electric rail transit that will last far into the future.

Note: This article was modified slightly on 12 December 2011 to correct the reported length of the planned streetcar route.

Posted 2011/12/02 Updated 2011/12/12

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      Michael Hill 5 years ago

      Can use subway ALSO where applicable for modern streetcar system. When lines re-extended into suburbs, more so than 1951 in populus, will we see return to car-lifts?

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      subwaydave 5 years ago

      They'd be better off refurbishing the old subway.