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.