City studies streetcar system
BY JON NEWBERRY | JNEWBERRY@ENQUIRER.COM
The city of Cincinnati has hired a national engineering group to study a streetcar link of the riverfront and downtown business district with Over-the-Rhine.
The initial phase would likely be a three- to four-mile loop. An extension to the University of Cincinnati and city hospital complex could be part of the first phase or come later.
Future lines could extend into Northern Kentucky and possibly other city neighborhoods to the east and west.
The concept has been pushed for several years by groups that think Cincinnati's lack of public transportation alternatives is hurting economic development.
Chris Bortz, chairman of City Council's Economic Development Committee, is a streetcar advocate.
He said most members of council and Mayor Mark Mallory also favor the idea if it can be financed without additional taxes - which he thinks is feasible.
"The city has a great need for a more complete, holistic transportation system. Buses and roads just don't get it done," Bortz said.
"We need to create a city that's easy to get around in."
The $160,000 study by Omaha, Neb.-based HDR Inc. is to be completed by early May, according to Michael Moore, city architect.
The project team includes Charles Hales, the "father" of the highly successful streetcar system in Portland, Ore., who's now a principal with HDR's Portland office.
The Portland system has spurred billions of dollars of economic development over the last five years, most of which is within a block or so of the streetcar line.
That is what makes the concept so promising for areas such as Over-the-Rhine and the Uptown district.
Empty lots and redevelopment opportunities abound there.
Moore said the study is expected to produce "a recommended Phase-One alignment" including projected construction costs, operating costs and potential financing plan. It would then be up to City Council and the city manager to decide if and how to proceed, he said.
Noting that streetcar systems are much easier and cheaper to build than light rail, Bortz said it's feasible that streetcars could be up and running within two years if the city pursued it aggressively.
"It seems to be a transportation system that works in a lot of other cities," Moore said.
Some 50 other cities have studied or are studying similar projects, including Atlanta, where a proposed streetcar line has attracted "so much interest that they can't settle on a plan," he said.
Architect Denny Dellinger, owner of the former Jackson Brewery building and a founder of the Brewery District community development organization in Over-the-Rhine, said his group supports a streetcar line because of its ability to stimulate economic development.
"Developers aren't going to build a new development on a bus line, but they will along a streetcar line," he said. The rail in the ground makes all the difference. "That's a permanent, significant improvement that's not going to move," he said.
"I think it would just change things overnight. I really do."
HDR and the city began work in November, but it took a while to get going, Moore said. The next meeting is planned for later this month with a 25-to-30 member local advisory panel that's being assembled by the city. With development plans proceeding for the Banks site on Cincinnati's central riverfront and other major development projects, it seemed like the right time to examine a streetcar system, he said.
The goal, Moore said, is to strike a balance between serving riders who want to travel between existing destinations - the riverfront, downtown employers, convention facilities, entertainment venues, Fountain Square, Findlay Market - and promoting development opportunities in areas that are not already fully built up, particularly in Over-the-Rhine.
"One of the great things streetcars do is allow folks to not use their cars so much ... (or) not even own cars," he said. "If a streetcar makes the demand for parking less, then that opens the door for redevelopment."
A lot of proposed residential developments get hung up by the cost of building parking facilities, so if a streetcar system can reduce the number of needed parking spaces from two or three cars per unit to one car per unit, that can close the financing gap and make those projects feasible.
The idea of a streetcar was appealing to Minyette Burke of Mount Healthy as she waited at a cold Vine Street bus stop downtown on Tuesday afternoon, especially if it reduced the time she'd have to wait for her ride up the hill to Clifton.
"I would ride it. I think it would be nice," she said.