Cincinnati Streetcar Needs Ways to Boost Ridership, Revenue

The Cincinnati streetcar system is in trouble.

Since opening in September 2016, the Cincinnati Bell Connector has been plagued with disappointing ridership, slow service and ticket machine problems.

Ridership in January 2018 was half of what it was in January 2017.

The Cincinnati Enquirer noted that Kansas City, Missouri, opened a streetcar system at about the same time that is similar in structure as the Cincinnati Bell Connector, but has been far more successful.

Whereas the Cincinnati Bell Connector carried 578,641 passengers in 2017, Kansas City had 2,060,425 passengers.

The Enquirer said that although the streetcar has spurred economic development, there’s been no official measure of how much growth it has stimulated in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood or in downtown Cincinnati.

The streetcars themselves have experienced failures with their air compressors, heating, braking, propulsion and power and may need to be rebuilt.

There have been so many problems with the CAF-USA cars that the City of Cincinnati has stopped paying CAF to make repairs.

The Kansas City streetcars were also built by CAF but have had far fewer problems.

Transdev, the operator of the Cincinnati Bell Connector, has had problems staffing the system and its streetcar contract was bid at $3.3 million, which is less than what it’s costing Transdev to operate the system.

Advertising, naming rights and fare revenues have all been below estimates, causing the streetcar to operate at a deficit.

Advertising revenue has been nearly $150,000 short of projections and fare revenue has come up $28,107 short.

The task of reversing the fortunes of the Cincinnati Bell Connector has been given to Cincinnati Councilman Greg Landsman, who has issued a five-point plan to bolster ridership and improve finances and management of the system.

Landsman has proposed that the city hire a new director to provide cohesive leadership, create a nonprofit agency to oversee the project, complete a traffic study, develop a marketing campaign, and resolve issues that continue to block streetcars from moving.

Landsman’s ideas will be reviewed as council goes through the 2019 budget process that must be complete by June 30.

The streetcar was originally designed to link downtown Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati. But controversy over its development led to it terminating in Over-the-Rhine. As operated today, it runs on a 3.6-mile loop.

An Enquirer story about the performance of the Cincinnati Bell Connector to date noted that another issue facing the system is that it has three bosses.

Issues facing the streetcar network might be resolved by the city, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority or Transdev.

In speaking to the council recently, Landsman, who was elected last November, said his approach is the result of having fresh eyes.

“A lot of people are understandably exhausted, having been working on this for years. We like solving problems and this particular issue has plenty of problems to solve, he said.

The idea of creating a non-profit agency to run the Cincinnati Bell Connector is being borrowed from Kansas City, where a nonprofit agency that runs the streetcar has a board of directors of 12 people, all of whom live or work along the streetcar route.

The Enquirer said having such a board to oversee the streetcar would provide needed leadership, noting that Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley isn’t a fan of the streetcar and unsuccessfully sought to halt its development in 2013.

“The project needs a leader,” said John Schneider, an activist who backed the streetcar’s development. “It needs somebody at city hall who can design the streetcar for success.”

One way that Kansas City has stimulated ridership of its streetcar line is offering free rides.

Balky ticket machines have hindered ridership on the Cincinnati Bell Connector although the bugs with the machine have been fixed.

Many of the mechanical problems that have plagued the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcars arose last January during harsh winter weather.

The car air compressors experienced problems that meant the cars could not run reliably in the cold and for four days during a particular cold snap no cars ran at all.

Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black has said the mechanical problems are fleet wide and the long-term solution is to redesign certain systems on the cars.

“CAF built these vehicles and must fix them, and we are fully engaging them including through the City Solicitor’s office,” Black said.

Staff turnover at operator Transdev has exacerbated the problems of the Cincinnati streetcar, which is now on its fifth Cincinnati general manager and fifth maintenance manager.

The turnover in top management has been due to such issues as retirements, health issues and firings.

Last December all four maintenance workers were on leave, although the company says they are all back on the job and the workforce has been stabilized.

A consultant’s report estimated it would cost $3.3 million a year to run the streetcar, including having wait times of 10 minutes between trains at peak-use times.

But that project turned out to be in error and more cars have had to be run in order to meet that 10-minute target, which has driven up costs.

“Every streetcar project has a unique set of startup challenges and the Cincinnati Bell Connector is no different,” said Bernie McCall, chief operating officer Transdev’s rail division. “Transdev will continue to deploy the needed resources and work with our partners at the city, SORTA and CAF to ensure the Connector runs effectively and safely.”

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