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Friday, February 01, 2008

Cincinnati Street Car Boosters: Have They Studied Cleveland's $70 Million Waterfront Line?

CINCINNATI (TDB) -- The 2.2-mile Waterfront Line is a light-rail loop built with state funds in 1996 that connects Cleveland's downtown to the Flats and Lake Erie waterfront. By 2002, ridership was so sparse that trips were cut. Cleveland's RTA director called it "a transportation manager's nightmare." Now, streetcar boosters in Cincinnati are pushing a $102 million plan for a loop from the Ohio River to Over-the-Rhine. They say: Look at Portland, Oregon. Nothing seems to be mentioned about Cleveland's experience. Some supporters in Cincinanti appear to be angry that anyone would even dare question the wisdom of putting streetcars back on the tracks.

[UPDATE: 2:57 PM 2/2/08 -- At the Cincinnati Beacon today there is more about streetcars, along with a sensible suggestion for an experiment. The test: Paint lines on the street matching the width of tracks and run a trolley on the path to see if people ride it. "With a painted line, people can physically see the route -- as with a streetcar line. And Metro already has some buses designed to look like trolley cars . . . Would there be substantive ridership?"]

But Democratic City Councilman John Cranley -- who is asking the hard questions -- probably knows something about what happened in Cleveland. Ridership plummeted by nearly 40 percent after two years. The Flats didn't grow -- in fact, it faded out as an entertainment district. Cranley has some Cleveland ties; his roommate at John Carroll University there was Joe Cimperman, a Dem Cleveland councilman who represents the city's downtown ward. This year, Cimperman is challenging U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich in the OH-10 primary, and actually has a chance of knocking him off on March 4.

Cincinnati's envisioned streetcars are not quite the same as Cleveland's RAPID, but they both are designed to haul passengers on rails. In Cincinnati, boosters point to Portland, Ore., where they say the downtown streetcars helped trigger $2 billion in residential and commercial development along a 4.2 mile loop. In Cleveland, despite initial hopes, that hasn't happened 11 years later. By January 2002, The Plain Dealer's Rich Exner found a third fewer trains were running on the line than at the start. He also found Norman Krumholz, Cleveland's former planning director and a professor at Cleveland State University, who said:

"Nobody should be surprised that it is not carrying many passengers. It doesn't go through any areas of very dense residential development. It doesn't go through any areas of high-density employment. What RTA has got to do is try to urge the city to build more housing close to the line, develop more opportunities close to the line."

In contrast, the State of Ohio's 1997 transportation system report was rosy about the Waterfront Line and its prospect for making Cleveland grow:

"The Waterfront Line provides a wide range of economic and environmental benefits. The rail line's potential to move people from one downtown destination to another is advancing some long-delayed development projects, increasing property values along the route and creating new opportunities for urban development. Since its opening, developers have completed or announced plans for new development. New apartments, restaurants and other buildings have already opened and plans for a new hotel are underay. Many older buildings in the old warehouse district are also scheduled for major renovation."

But five years later, the Waterfront Line was called the city's "transportation manager's nightmare." Rather than 785,000 riders, it was down to 471,000.


  1. Under the current plan, the proposed line connects Over The Rhine to 4th street. Are the Over The Rhiners having problems getting to the banks on 4th street? Are the bankers having problems getting to Over The Rhine?

    The only time a streetcar might make sense is on Bengals home game days. Then it is hard to get in and out of the stadium area. Might be nice to score some cheap off- site parking and take the trolley to the stadium. But, the train doesnt run near the stadium.

    So what's the point?

    Portland ("Potland") is full of "greens" and save-the-planet folks in flannel shirts. Good for them.

    But Cincinnati isn't. We have consevatives in sweater vests and SUV's who are terrified of "the inner-city". They certainly don't want a train to take them to Over the Rhine.

    Aside from wishful thinking, this train idea has little going for it.

  2. Memphis,Tennessee also has a railed streetcar which runs in the downtown area, terminating at the convention center. Even convention-goers don't ride it. It was a waste of money and certainly hasn't reinvigorated downtown Memphis.

  3. Anon & Lisa --

    I would love to see streetcars in Cincinnati. I ride them every chance I get in Toronto, and have used them in cities across in eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union. I really wonder about the financial viability in Cincinnati -- if there is a need, if there is a payoff -- then perhaps they should be restored and publicly subsidized. But the Cleveland experience doesn't bode well. And I'm disappointed that the local media has not looked into the fate of the Waterfront Line. After all, it is in Ohio and a lot of Ohio (including Cincy) taxpayers' money went into that project. The governor at the time was George Voinovich; former Cleveland mayor and current U.S. Senator from Ohio. Some believe that he is a Republican.

  4. I haven't formed an opinion yet on the streetcar issue here but one thing stood out from your comparison. Cleveland was investing based on expected (and unfulfilled) development. Cincinnati is looking to add the line to already developed areas.
    I live in a suburb and can certainly see how having convenient transportation after I park downtown could influence me to shop and eat downtown longer than I do otherwise. As long as the numbers work out and aren't based on best case scenarios then they may be worth a shot.

  5. Anon --

    Cleveland is pretty developed in the areas where the Waterfront line tracks were laid. The area is downtown, from the Flats (Cuyahoga River) to where the football stadium is located back to Tower City, which is Tower City, akin to Carew Tower in Cincy.
    It was not in an empty, deserted area. It was the heart of the city.

  6. Ooops -- Terminal Tower not Tower City in the second reference.

  7. A Concerned ReaderFebruary 02, 2008 9:26 AM


    I normally love your stuff but this comparison is misguided.

    Light rail and streetcars are two very different things.

    Also, Norman Krumholz' statement about Cleveland's system not going through "any areas of very dense residential development" seems like it supports the plan here. OTR has extremely high density, and downtown's is increasing all the time.

    For every Cleveland, there are multiple places that have had success with streetcars nationwide.

  8. Concerned reader --

    The line in Cleveland gets heavy traffic on weekends when the Browns are playing, and for the downtown summer festivals. And there are links to heavy density residential areas -- big links. The main lines of the RAPID all come into Terminal Tower, where there is a central station that connects to the Waterfront Line. Those main lines go out to Shaker Heights etc on the east, and the airport on the West. I do understand that street cars and light rail are not quite the same -- but the idea behind the Waterfront Line is pretty much what is now being talked up in Cincy, a large Ohio city with a similar Midwestern culture, habits, growth and population trends as Cleveland. Indeed, there may, emphasize may, even be a stronger case in Cleveland, where the Clinic is on the East Side a few miles from downtown. It is now the largest employer. Again, I would love to see streetcars come back, I am old enough to have ridden them in a few U.S. cities before the disappeared in the 1950s. I think they will have to be heavily subisidized by the public, and that subsidy is the issue.

  9. My understanding is Tower City was a new shopping destination and the Flats was a new entertainment area. Neither lived up to the initial interest and the Rapid system was intended to bring people to those new and now faltering destinations.
    Downtown Cincinnati isn't new but the influx of new residents is.

  10. To the first poster that said the street car doesn't even run to the stadium: well, you're wrong. The plan is to run it in between the two stadiums, through downtown and into OTR. Both are high density areas. The next phase has it going Uptown through UC's campus and to where all the hospitals are. IMO, this is the most critical piece and is needed for the success. As a UC student, I would have loved to have the streetcar. And now as a downtown worker, I'd still love to have it to get to Findlay Market, etc.