Cincinnati streetcar

Cincinnati streetcars were the main form of public transportation in Cincinnati, Ohio at the turn of the twentieth century.[1] The original streetcar system was dismantled in 1951.[2]

In 2007 the city completed a study to determine if installing modern streetcars would be beneficial.[3] On April 23, 2008 Cincinnati City Council approved a plan to build a new streetcar line.[4] In 2009 and 2011 the city voted on referendums designed to stop the streetcar project, but in both cases a majority of voters favored the project. Ground was broken for the Downtown/Over-the-Rhine line on February 17, 2012 and utility relocation began at that time.[5] In July 2013, the City of Cincinnati signed a contract for the construction of the tracks, power system, and maintenance facility, and the system is expected to open to passengers on September 15, 2016.[6]

Historic streetcar system

The track gauge was (Pennsylvania trolley gauge).[7]

Cincinnati's first settlers made their home on the large flat basin that now includes downtown, Over-the-Rhine, and the West End.[2] By the 1850s the city's population was too large for the basin alone, and people started moving to the city's surrounding hills.[2] At that time horsecars were the main form of transportation, but were inadequate because the animals would fatigue and the hills were impossible to climb in bad weather.[2] Cities with hilly terrain such as Cincinnati and San Francisco began adopting cable cars because they were faster and more reliable than horses.

The first cable car routes in Cincinnati were on Gilbert Avenue, Mount Auburn, and Vine Street.[2] Cable cars require that the car be pulled by a constantly running cable hidden under the street.[8] Electricity proved to be cheaper and more reliable than cable cars, which required that the cable be replaced periodically. Consequently, starting on August 17, 1889, the first streetcars were introduced,[8] and the existing cable cars were converted to electric streetcars or abandoned.[2] The lines grew until there were 222 miles (357 km) of streetcar tracks in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.[1] For decades Cincinnati's streetcar system consistently carried over 100 million passengers a year.[8] Comparatively, in 2000 approximately 25 million people rode Cincinnati's Metro bus system.[8]

Cincinnati was one of only three cities in North America whose streetcars used double overhead trolley wire (two wires for each track) and twin trolley poles on each streetcar, the only others being Havana, Cuba, and the small Merrill, Wisconsin system.[9] All routes used double trolley wire, the only exception being on route 78, a portion of which outside the city limits had only a single wire for each track.[10] On all other North American streetcar systems the rails served as the return path for the electrical current collected via the trolley pole, but this requires proper bonding of the rails to prevent stray current from escaping and interfering with nearby utility lines, such as telephone lines. In Cincinnati, the primary early streetcar operating company, the Cincinnati Street Railway, chose to install double-wire from the beginning, to save money.[9]

The streetcars were used in conjunction with four of Cincinnati's inclined railways, the Mount Adams Incline, Mount Auburn Incline, Bellevue Incline, and Fairview Incline.[2] Except for the Fairview Incline, these originally conveyed horsecars, but were later equipped to carry electric streetcars. The cars would be driven onto the incline platform, which was level and was equipped with rails and (in most cases) overhead trolley wires. The platform, riding on its own rails, would then be pulled up the hill by the cable, carrying the streetcar. Once reaching the top, the streetcar could simply be driven off of the platform, onto the fixed-in-place track along city streets.[2]

The streetcars remained the main form of public transportation for the city until the popularity of the automobile caused ridership to wane. With the improvement of local highways beginning before World War II, citizens were able to own more land and still be able to conveniently drive into the city to enjoy its benefits.[2] Aided by an anti-rail stance by the City of Cincinnati and suburbs such as Norwood, the streetcars were quickly phased out after the war in favor of buses and trolley buses, and on April 29, 1951 the last streetcars were retired.[2][8][10] The Mount Adams Incline closed in 1948 when routine inspection in preparation for repairs revealed that the undergirding timbers were dangerously decayed.[11] This was the death knell of the incline, following complaints that it was "unsightly," cost too much, caused roadblocks, and was rendered useless by the automobile.[12] At the time it was closed, the Mount Adams Incline was Cincinnati's top tourist attraction.[12]

The last two streetcar lines, abandoned on April 29, 1951, were routes 21-Westwood-Cheviot and 55-Vine-Clifton.[9] They were converted to trolley buses—commonly known as "trolley coaches" at that time—as had happened previously with several other streetcar lines. The city's trolley bus system lasted another 14 years, until June 18, 1965.[9]

Cincinnati has been criticized for closing the streetcars and inclines without realizing their potential for tourism dollars.[12] In 1947, San Francisco's cable car system was threatened with closure for similar reasons.[13] A plan was put in place that would have replaced the city's cable cars with a new "super bus" system,[13] but a public vote saved the cable cars.[12] Today San Francisco's cable cars are vital to the city's tourism industry,[13] carry 7.5 million passengers a year, and generate more than $20 million in fare revenue.[14] Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory, a supporter of the streetcars, acknowledged the possibility of reinstalling one or more inclines if the new proposal for streetcars is successful enough.[12] The city still owns the rights-of-way where the inclines once sat.[12]

Modern streetcar system

The streetcar line was conceived as a way to energize housing and development in Over-the-Rhine, Downtown Cincinnati, and the "uptown" neighborhoods that surround the University of Cincinnati.[4] The fundamental goal of the streetcar proposal is to create transit-oriented development.[15]

At the end of the twentieth century Over-the-Rhine, which is adjacent to downtown, was one of the most economically distressed areas in the United States.[16] Over-the-Rhine's instability was preventing growth and investment in the city's Central Business District,[16] which, in turn, has been affecting the health of the entire region.[16] Ideally, the streetcar line would attract downtown (and uptown) workers to live near the line, provide economic stimulation and development, and provide transportation for local residents and tourists. The streetcars appeared in Cincinnati's massive 2002 transit plan, MetroMoves,[17] which was rejected when taken to a public vote.[18]

The modern streetcar plan began construction with a groundbreaking on February 17, 2012.[5]

Feasibility study

A feasibility study was completed in 2007 that focused on a 3.9-mile (6.3 km) loop from The Banks, through downtown and Over-the-Rhine.[19] According to the study the city would gain between 1,200 and 3,400 additional residences, raise an additional $34,000,000 in property taxes, and yield $17,000,000 in retail activity per year from new residents.[3] Within a quarter mile of the line there are 97 acres (39 ha) of surface parking lots along the downtown and Over-the-Rhine line.[3] The potential yield of the parking lots for redevelopment is 3,787 housing units or 7,412,900 sq ft (688,680 m2) of commercial/office/hotel space.[3] The study says lots would create between $54 million and $193 million additional redevelopment per year, with a conservative estimate of $112 million per year.[3] A total property value premium of $379,000,000 plus $1,480,000,000 of redevelopment over 10 years (conservative estimate) would equal a total of $1,911,000,000 of benefits for the city.[3] The study concludes that the benefit-cost ratio of the downtown and Over-the-Rhine line would be 15.2 to 1, which means for every dollar Cincinnati spends it will receive $15.20 in return.[3] The University of Cincinnati "checked the math" of the study and found that the "projections of the benefits of ridership and economic development" are "credible."[20]

The study projected that a 2010 opening year would draw an estimated 4,600 riders of the downtown and Over-the-Rhine portion of the line each weekday.[3] According to city leaders, if 2 percent of downtown workers, and 2 percent of convention attendees, and 2 percent of Over-the-Rhine residents ride the streetcars it will meet that daily ridership.[15] By 2015 about 6,400 people are estimated to ride the streetcars per weekday.[3] Ridership numbers for the uptown line were not included in the study.

The 2007 study also claims the streetcar system would have four significant economic effects:

  1. Customer base and customer access will expand for existing businesses.
  2. Improved market values of existing properties.
  3. Catalyst for new transit-oriented development where less parking is required.
  4. Supporting neighborhoods by making them more walkable.


The streetcar route would connect various Cincinnati landmarks and businesses to 92 acres (370,000 m2) of surface parking and dozens of abandoned or underused buildings.[21] According to city leaders the parking lots and abandoned buildings are "ripe for redevelopment."[21]

The line will start on 2nd Street. The line will then travel north on Main Street through downtown until it reached 12th Street in Over-the-Rhine. The line would then turn west on 12th street. The streetcar would continue until it reaches Elm Street, where it would turn north. The line continues heading north until it reaches Henry Street, at which point it would turn east a short distance before turning south on Race Street. The line would follow Race Street until it reaches Central Parkway, where it would turn east. The last turn would be south on Walnut Street where it would continue until it returned to 2nd Street.

The south portion of the line, below Central Parkway, would provide service to Cincinnati's Central Business District. Places of interest directly on the line include The Banks, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Great American Ball Park, Government Square (Metro's main bus hub), Fountain Square, Aronoff Center, Contemporary Arts Center, Mercantile Library of Cincinnati, Court Street Historic District, and Cincinnati Public Library (Main Library). Other places of interest that are within walking distance of the line are U.S. Bank Arena, Paul Brown Stadium, Taft Theatre, John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, Carew Tower/Tower Place Mall, Piatt Park, Lytle Park Historic District, Taft Museum, Yeatman's Cove, Sawyer Point, and The Purple People Bridge. Major employers on or within walking distance the line include Fifth Third Bank, Procter & Gamble, Duke Energy, American Financial Group, E. W. Scripps Company, Convergys Corporation, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The center portion of the line follows Central Parkway and southern Over-the-Rhine, in a small area that is home to much of Cincinnati's performing arts. Places of interest that are directly on the line include Music Hall (home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati Opera), Gateway Quarter, Ensemble Theatre, Memorial Hall, Know Theatre, Emery Theatre, School for Creative and Performing Arts, and Washington Park. Kroger Corporate Headquarters is along this portion of the line.

The northern portion of the line would serve residents of Over-the-Rhine and provide a link to the future Uptown Connector. Places of interest include Findlay Market, the Brewery District, and Rookwood Pottery.

Line extensions

The feasibility study suggested the possibility of several extensions or future additions including a line through Cincinnati's "uptown" neighborhoods to the University of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Zoo, and to the neighborhood of Clifton.[3] Other extensions include a line through the West End to Union Terminal, a line to the East End neighborhood using an abandoned track, and a line across the Taylor-Southgate Bridge to Newport on the Levee in Newport, Kentucky.[3] The cities of Newport, Kentucky and Covington, Kentucky across the Ohio River officially support Cincinnati's streetcar proposal, and would like to install a system that links with the Cincinnati system if it is built.[22]

On April 23, 2008 Cincinnati City Council voted 6-2 in favor of building the lines that link downtown, Over-the-Rhine, and uptown.[4] Originally, the city wanted to build the line that connects Over-the-Rhine and downtown in the first phase, and then build the uptown link in a second phase.[15] However, a council majority wanted a mixture of both in the first phase.[15] Opening of the first streetcar line would not take place before 2011 or 2012.[23]

The uptown extension has not yet been finalized, but the most likely candidates are the Vine Street hill or West Clifton Avenue.[21] Vine Street was a path for the original streetcars, but an "extreme hillside" to the west of the street and a city park and an elementary school to the east leaves less land for development when compared to West Clifton Avenue.[24] West Clifton Avenue passes through Clifton Heights, which is one of the densest neighborhoods in the city due to its concentration of UC students.[24] The final path to uptown will be based on whether or not West Clifton Avenue is too steep for streetcar travel,[21][24] and which path could tap into more federal funding.[24] Other paths to uptown, which are less likely to be chosen, include Ravine Street and Gilbert Avenue.[24]

Cost and funding

The Downtown/Over-the-Rhine line would cost $102 million.[4] A Downtown/Over-the-Rhine/University of Cincinnati line would cost $128 million.[25] The full Downtown/Over-the-Rhine/University of Cincinnati/Uptown/Zoo line would cost $185 million.[4] The cost estimate for the Downtown/Over-the-Rhine line includes approximately 4.5 miles (7.2 km) of track and overhead power supply (for the route and storage/maintenance), 6 streetcars, 18 streetcar stops, a maintenance/storage facility for the streetcars, as well as a 15% to 25% contingency on project line items.[26]

The money to fund the $102 million Downtown/Over-the-Rhine line would be attained from a variety of sources.[4] Of those, $25 million would come from capital bonds; $25 million from tax increment financing from downtown property taxes; $31 million from private contributors, partners and sponsors; $11 million from proceeds from the sale of the Blue Ash Airport; and $10 million from state grants.[4] The remaining $80 million to $85 million for the full Uptown system was planned to be built later, mostly with federal funds.[4] However, after city council approved the streetcar plan they decided to look for an additional $35 million to "get up the hill" to the University of Cincinnati.[4] (Engineering and construction costs for the uphill portion of the line would cost more than the portion of the line built on flat land.[4]) The $35 million would only take the streetcars up to the University, that money would not extend it to the Cincinnati Zoo.[4]

Annual operating costs were estimated between $2.0 and $2.7 million per year for the Downtown/Over-the-Rhine line.[3] The estimate includes labor for streetcar operators, for maintenance of the streetcars, track and other facilities, and for ongoing management and administration of the service.[26] A portion of the cost would be covered by a fare, if there is one.[26] The fare policy has not been decided and could cost anywhere from "the current local bus fare" ($1.50 as of 2009) to free.[26] According to City Council member Chris Bortz, the remaining operating cost could be covered by a variety of means, the most likely being revenue from advertisements inside and/or outside the streetcar—similar to how ads are done with Cincinnati's bus system.[15]

Due to the severe economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 the city has had trouble raising the full $35 million needed from private sources.[21] (Duke Energy has promised to donate $3.5 million.[27]) City officials have made several trips to Washington to lobby for federal money for the streetcar system.[21]

In May 2010, the city had raised over 90 million in funds, and expected federal grants in the summer of 2010 to cover the remaining cost.

  • $15 million from Ohio Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC)[28]
  • $64 million in bonds by the City of Cincinnati[29]
  • $2.6 million in local funds[30]
  • $15 million from the Ohio Department of Transportation[30]
  • $4 million from the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments[30]
  • $25 million from the United States Department of Transportation's Urban Circulator Grant Program[31]

After the Ohio Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) pulled its portion of funding for the project, the city postponed the Uptown Connector and moved forward with a slightly shortened Downtown/Over-the-Rhine route. After receiving an additional Urban Circulator grant from the United States Department of Transportation, the route was extended to reach Henry Street to the north and 2nd Street to the south.

In 2011 Governor John Kasich took away $52 million in state money that had been awarded to the streetcar by the previous administration. Despite being the Ohio Department of Transportion's top rated project, the money was redirected to projects in other areas of the state.[32] In 2012, Congressman Steve Chabot added an amendment to the annual transportation spending bill that prohibits any federal money going to the streetcar.[33]

2009 Referendum

Special interest groups COAST (Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes) and the Cincinnati NAACP both oppose the streetcar system.[34] Both groups gathered signatures[35] for a ballot initiative that would amend the city's charter and force a public vote on the streetcars.[36] However, the amendment would affect more than just streetcars forcing a public vote on any rail-based system including the proposed high-speed rail that connects Cincinnati to Columbus and Cleveland,[34][37] and potentially even the "Safari Train" at the Cincinnati Zoo.[38] Since the amendment is usually described as a vote on the streetcars CityBeat has suggested the amendment is "deceptive" and an attempt to reverse "COAST's waning political influence" in the city.[37] (COAST has been described as "rabidly anti-mass transit."[37]) The Cincinnati Enquirer, who believes the city is not ready for streetcars,[39] called the proposed amendment a "poison pill" that is "DECEPTIVE in its language and intent."[40]

A political action committee called Cincinnatians for Progress was formed to oppose the amendment proposed by COAST and the NAACP.[36] According to Cincinnatians for Progress, the amendment would unnecessarily delay projects by 10 to 12 months while the city waits on a public vote, and put Cincinnati at a competitive disadvantage with other cities.[36] In the November 3, 2009 local elections however, this city charter amendment proposal failed, losing 56% to 44%.[41]

2011 Referendum

After losing at the ballot box in 2009, COAST and the local NAACP began collecting signatures in 2011 for a similar ballot initiative.[42] This referendum, known as Issue 48, differed by banning any spending on rail until December 31, 2020 rather than requiring a city-wide vote for spending. It would've banned spending no matter what the source of money (Federal, State, Privately financed, etc.).[43] Critics believed the language of the amendment again applied to all forms of rail transit, including any plans for a streetcar, light rail, or commuter rail.[44]

The Cincinnati Enquirer endorsed a "No" vote on Issue 48, stating, "we vigorously oppose Issue 48 and urge voters to reject it. ... Issue 48 is a bad, bad, bad idea."[45] According to "a majority of legal experts" interviewed by the Enquirer, Issue 48 "is written so broadly it could stop other rail projects in the city."[46] Non-streetcar commuter rail projects that may have been affected included the county-backed Eastern Rail Corridor project, which plans to connect the eastern suburbs to downtown using an abandoned rail line.[46] Others who endorsed a "No" vote were Cincinnati CityBeat,[47] League of Women Voters of the Cincinnati Area,[48] and former leaders of the local NAACP.[49]

Issue 48 was defeated 52% to 48% on November 8, 2011.[50] This, along with Cincinnati electing a more progressive city council, is expected to allow the streetcar project to proceed.[50]

Arguments for the streetcar

  • Portland, Oregon spent $57 million to build its streetcar system and recouped $1.6 billion in investment. According to research, the investment in Cincinnati would yield nearly $3 billion in development.[51]
  • An economic impact analysis suggested the streetcars would have a 14:1 benefit-cost ratio over the next decade.[15]
  • The Economics Center for Education & Research at the University of Cincinnati have independently verified the analysis and projections of the 2007 streetcar study.[20][36]
  • Downtown and Over-the-Rhine has 97 acres (390,000 m2) of surface parking lots within 1/4 mile of the line, which is a lot of potential development.[3]
  • Much of the recent investment in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood is based on the belief that the system will be built. Rookwood Pottery moved from Glendora Avenue in Corryville to Race Street in Over-the-Rhine, near Findlay Market, so that it would be on the streetcar line.[52]
  • Everyone in the region will benefit from the increased investment in the city's core because that's where most of the city's jobs are.[15]
  • The economic impact of the streetcars would help attract talent, create jobs and a sense of community; which Cincinnati needs to remain competitive in a world market.[15]
  • The streetcars themselves would help attract and keep young professionals who can choose to live anywhere after college.[15]
  • Over-the-Rhine is about 75% vacant, and the streetcars would help add density back into the neighborhood.[15]
  • Forty-six (46) cities either have streetcars, or are trying to develop them.[51]

Arguments against the streetcar

  • There's no guarantee the streetcars will be as effective in Cincinnati as they are in any city of the world with successful streetcars today.[51]
  • Opponents of the Streetcars have stated that instead of spending money on the streetcars the city should first repair streets and help neighborhood business districts.[53]
  • The city is spending a lot of money to benefit relatively few people.[15]

See also



  • Singer, Allen J. (2003), ISBN 0-7385-2314-3

External links

  • A Detailed History of Cincinnati Streetcars
  • A map of the original streetcar tracks
  • The City of Cincinnati's Streetcar Info
  • Video of a Public Streetcar Debate
  • Inclines of Cincinnati