- Cincinnati Cincinnati Streetcars and Light Rail
HomePICSIn GeneralRail FactsFAQsLinksMapsContributeContact


Why can't we just decorate a bus and paint a stripe down the street to designate the streetcar route instead of spending $100 million?

We could do that, and we might get a small transportation benefit from doing so. But we'd be missing the big picture – the economic development that results from a permanent improvement to the public realm. People aren’t dumb. They know that a bus line can be here today and gone tomorrow. It’s seems counter-intuitive, but it is the permanence of a transportation system that creates value, not its flexibility. What would happen if the Cincinnati – Northern Kentucky International Airport simply picked up and moved? Wouldn’t that cause a huge loss of value for all the businesses that have invested near there? Don’t you think home values would fall dramatically in Mariemont if Columbia Parkway suddenly went away? How valuable would your house be if your street could be moved at any time?

I like the idea of streetcars in Cincinnati, but I don't live in Downtown, OTR or Uptown. How does this benefit my family?

Phase One of the Cincinnati Streetcar and its Uptown Circulator will pass through or be adjacent to eleven Cincinnati neighborhoods including the the Banks, Downtown, Over-the-Rhine, West End, Mt. Auburn, Corryville, Clifton Heights, Fairview, Clifton, University Heights and Avondale. Extensions have been mapped to Price Hill, Northside, Hyde Park, Mt. Lookout, and East End. Light rail trains would serve areas more than five or six miles from the CBD.

Starting by building the line from Downtown to Uptown is critical. About two-thirds of the tax revenues of the City of Cincinnati are generated in the employment centers there. This is what pays for most of the cost of parks, street maintenance and police in College Hill, Westwood, Mt. Washington and other Cincinnati neighborhoods. Over-the-Rhine, with plenty of vacant land and historic building shells, lies in between. It once housed 35,000 people and could again. Cincinnati once had extensive streetcar service, and if Cincinnati’s experience with modern streetcars is good, look for more lines to be built in other areas of the city. Cincinnati planners are also enabling easy connections to Northern Kentucky.

Look at it this way: when President Eisenhower committed our nation to the fifty-year task of building the 45,000-mile Interstate Highway System, someone had to decide where the first mile would be built.

I'm disabled. How can I ride the streetcar?

Very easily. The streetcar has saucer-sized buttons along its exterior and interior walls. If you are in a wheelchair or motorized scooter, or pushing a stroller or pulling a grocery cart, you simply push the button when the streetcar stops, and a level ramp extends to the curb for level access. If you are blind, the streetcar operator can signal for the ramp to ease your access to or from the streetcar. Many disabled Portlanders choose to live along the light rail and streetcar lines because the vehicles are barrier-free, which enables them to lead more independent lives.

Is Charlie Winburn right when he says it would be better to run a diesel bus instead?

Charlie Winburn is an important leader in our community, but he has been misinformed on the benefits of the bus trolleys outlined in a story that appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier. Your can read the Courier article here:

In a packet mailed in January to Cincinnati business leaders seeking contributions of $14 million, Mr. Winburn outlines the details of his plan for a rubber-tired trolley to serve Downtown, Over-the-Rhine and Uptown. Unfortunately, many of his assumptions are flawed.

First, ridership: Mr. Winburn projects that his trolleys will attract 5,000 riders per day. Yet Northern Kentucky's Southbank Shuttle, a similar rubber-tired trolley operating in the densest parts of downtown Kentucky and Ohio carries an average of 1,273 riders per day. Louisville's trolleys attract about 1,100 passengers per day. Unlike Mr. Winburn's "free" trolleys, both of those operators charge fares to use their systems, but still ...

For the past decade, bus ridership has been generally flat in almost all but America's smallest cities, while rail ridership is seeing robust growth. Some new light rail lines have achieved first-year ridership that wasn't expected for ten or fifteen years. Where it's available, consumers see rail as car-competitive. It's just the way it is.

Second, cost: Assuming the trolleys run fifteen hours per day, he apparently figures they can be operated for about $40 per hour. Yet the Louisville trolley system operates similar vehicles at a cost of $75 per hour for labor, maintenance and fuel. Each of TANK's Southbank Shuttle buses costs $70 per hour to operate.It costs TANK $6.05 per passenger trip to operate the Southbank Shuttle over its 5.9 mile route. Mr. Winburn claims he can transport passengers on a route connecting Downtown through Uptown, about six miles round-trip by the shortest route, for around $1.42 per passenger trip.

Third, environmental impact and sustainability: Mr. Winburn's plan promises "sustainable and green" technology. Regrettably, what he proposes is a fleet of diesel-powered trucks disguised as streetcars. As many know, diesel-powered engines are a main source of micro-particulates, the kind of pollution that gets deep into the lungs and causes all sorts of health problems. Cincinnati is already our nation's ninth-most polluted city in terms of micro-particulate pollution.You know what is really sustainable? Electric rail transit. No American electric rail system that has opened since the end of World War II has ever gone out of business. Fake trolleys come and go whenever some money appears or finally runs out. The best evidence: SORTA purchased the almost-new truck-trolleys pictured in the Courier article for a song when their operator went out of business a few years ago.

Finally, economic development: If buses promoted economic development, then we'd see cranes all over Cincinnati because we have lots of buses. Mr. Winburn likes the idea that a bus route can be easily changed or eliminated. But who would ever make a long-term investment in one of our close-in neighborhoods because of a "here today, gone tomorrow" policy of infrastructure development? Serious critics of rail transit no longer dispute that cities which have invested in modern rail systems are seeing tremendous economic development along the lines. Fixed routes with permanent tracks drive investment, create jobs, reduce pollution and assist in not only transporting a workforce but in retaining the young workers who are among our best assets for the future.Unfortunately, Mr. Winburn's trolley can deliver none of those benefits.A streetcar system is a substantial investment, but it will deliver even greater returns - an estimated $14 in new economic development for every dollar invested. It is one of the best hopes for revitalizing many of our neighborhoods. Long-term, the Cincinnati Streetcar will be the foundation for a revitalized city-wide transit network. Just a few decades ago, Cincinnati had 50% more people and thriving neighborhood business districts. That was when we had an efficient, customer-friendly and extensive system of electric streetcars operating throughout the city. We can be that city again.Cincinnati's competitor cities, almost fifty of them across the nation, are considering new electric streetcars.

The great cities of the 21st century - and we want my Queen City hometown to be one of those - will have modern, rail-based transit systems. Let's hope that Mr Winburn will join efforts to move toward that future, but the bottom line is simple: Trains will get us there. Trolleys won't.

Someone told me that light rail and streetcars run on different tracks. Is that true?

Almost every modern railway in the world uses the same width of track, 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches, measured between the inside surfaces of the two rails. This is called "Standard Gauge." In the photograph on the right, you are seeing two sets of standard gauge tracks crossing. One of them is for Portland's east/west Max light rail line, and the other serves the Portland Streetcar.

Because two- and three-car trains are heavier, light rail track has deeper foundations and takes longer to build because all the pipes and other utilities beneath the trackbed need to be moved out of the way. Streetcar tracks are embedded in a 12-inch concrete slab, and the utilities are usually left in place. Building a block of streetcar track takes about a month, blocks only one lane of traffic for during that period, and is probably less disruptive to businessess than a sidewalk-building project.

Streetcars can run on light rail tracks, but light rail trains are too heavy to run on streetcar tracks.

I hear claims about a 15 to 1 economic impact and a 2.75 to 1 Benefit/Cost Ratio. What's the difference?

Both answers are correct, but they answer different questions. Economists project that the Cincinnati Streetcar will cause new Downtown/OTR development worth $1.5 billion, or 15 times the cost of the streetcar. But that is simply a comparison of the cost of the streetcar to the cost of the buildings that are likely to be erected on account of its presence. A more sophisticated measure is a Benefit/Cost Analysis (a “BCA”). In a BCA, all costs and benefits are discounted to their Present Value because we’ll be investing $102 million up-front and about $2.3 million each year to operate the streetcar, but the benefits won’t happen all at once. So a new building that goes up in 2018 costing $10 million might be “worth” only half that much to us today. Another way to look at this is … would you take $5 today instead of waiting ten years to collect $10? Most people would. Same with the improvements in air-quality, congestion reduction and low-income mobility. They will be substantial, but they will occur over time. A true BCA looks at the entire stream of costs – the cost to build the streetcar in the early years plus the ongoing cost to operate it -- and then compares those costs to the benefits achieved in each year of its life. Those benefits are summed up year-by-year and “discounted” by a percentage equal to the cost of government funds, in this case, 4%. So a dollar’s worth of benefit that doesn’t actually happen until a year from now is worth only $0.96 in terms of its Present Value. Same with the operating costs – the costs of operating the streetcar five years from now are discounted back to the present. When this laborious summation of benefits and costs was tabulated by the economists studying the project, the result was a Benefit-Cost Ratio of 2.75 to 1. This is an astonishing finding. It’s as if you could deposit $1.00 in the bank when it opens for business tomorrow morning and then return at Noon to withdraw all your funds, finding that they had suddenly grown to $2.75. Who wouldn’t make an investment like that?

Aren't the overhead wires ugly?

Modern streetcars and light rail use much smaller wires than those used by Nineteenth Century streetcar systems. And now there is usually only one wire, not two like we used to have in Cincinnati. Along tree-lined streets, the wires get lost in the foliage. See for yourself: look at the high-resolution photos of the overhead wires in the Portland Streetcar album under the “PICS” tab.

Why doesn't the streetcar use Vine Street through the center of Downtown and OTR?

Because Vine Street is a two-way street through Over-the-Rhine, it is problematic for fixed guideway transit. Our buses even get stuck in traffic there. There are good reasons for using Main and Walnut through downtown. For one thing, the Main and Walnut bridges over Fort Washington Way were designed to carry the weight of rail vehicles passing over them. If the streetcar route used Vine, Race or Elm to get to The Banks, then I-71 would have to be closed and those bridges rebuilt at a cost of $4 million each. Also, Cincinnati’s regional transit system is centered on Government Square along Fifth Street between Main and Walnut, so transfers between streetcars and buses can take place easily there. Finally, the center of downtown office employment is also near Government Square, and downtown office workers are the best candidates to repopulate Downtown and Over-the-Rhine. That process will happen faster and better if they can rely on the streetcar as a means of getting to and from work, redirecting the money they would have spent on cars for more and better housing near where they work.

How do you pay to use the streetcar?

Fare policy has not been finalized, but it is a very important aspect in the design of the streetcar system. Typically you would pay at an onboard ticket machine, like the ones pictured here, after you board the streetcar. The ticket would likely be time-stamped and good for a couple of hours of streetcar-riding. Someday you may be able to buy your ticket at a “smart” parking meter along the streetcar route before boarding. Even better, you may be able to pay to park your car and acquire your streetcar pass in one transaction, perhaps getting a discounted price for each. You may also be able to purchase a monthly or annual pass to ride the streetcar

I bought a bike to ride to work. What's in it for me?

A lot. You can take your bike right on the streetcar or light rail train. Many cyclists do. Given the steep grade between Downtown and Uptown, this would be a welcome opportunity.

Why doesn't the Cincinnati Streetcar run past our Convention Center?

We're building this for Cincinnatians who want to live their lives around the streetcar, not for people from other cities who visit our city only once. Conventioneers have plenty of spare time to walk a few blocks to the streetcar, perhaps even buying something along the way. The extendable ramp that allows disabled passengers to board in seconds also makes it easier to roll your luggage on or off the streetcar, as these travelers are about to do.

Won't the streetcar block traffic?

Streetcars hold up traffic less than buses do. Since everyone must enter one-at-a-time through a single door at the front of the bus, the boarding process is inherently slow, and it backs up cars behind the bus. If a disabled person on a scooter or in a wheelchair is trying to board or alight from the bus, traffic may be delayed several minutes. Modern streetcars have six sets of doors – three on each side – and four of them are barrier-free, double doors so lots of people can board simultaneously. Take a few minutes to watch how easily people board the Portland Streetcar:

Won't the burning of coal to provide electricity to operate the streetcar simply add to our climate problems?

This question was studied extensively by Mayor Mark Mallory’s Climate Change Initiative Task Force. For every ton of CO2 that is produced by burning coal to power the streetcar, two tons of CO2 aren’t produced by autos that would otherwise be carrying streetcar passengers. So in terms of its transportation mission, the streetcar cuts the production of CO2 by half for the people who use it. But the real gains are achieved on account of new settlement patterns that are likely to develop as a result of the streetcar’s presence. It is a known fact that persons living in walkable communities produce much less CO2 due to the construction and operation of their residences, due to their shopping more locally and due to the likelihood of their working nearby. When those assumptions were plugged into the model, the Cincinnati Streetcar reduced CO2 emissions by a factor of ten when compared to the emissions caused by the burning of coal to power it. And in any case, the Cincinnati Streetcar is not a heavy consumer of electric power. The engineers studying the project have calculated that if the Downtown-Uptown leg of the Cincinnati Streetcar were to buy 100% renewable power off the grid (wind power, for example), then that would add about 1.5% to the annual operating costs of the project -- not a significant number.

How far apart will the stops be?

Between 800 and 1,100 feet, or two to three blocks apart in dense areas of Downtown and Uptown, perhaps further apart in less-dense areas. Some stops may be "Call Stops" -- where you have to request the streetcar to stop and let you off, like on a bus. The stops will likely be sponsored by businesses and have electronic notification of the arrival times of the next two or three streetcars. You may also be able to get streetcar arrival times on your Blackberry.

Return to Top