Streetcar expansion momentum builds in NKY


 

The Cincinnati Streetcar launched Sept. 9 as an unqualified hit.

The line carried almost 200,000 people in its first three weeks. Extra vehicles were pressed into service for Oktoberfest weekend, resulting in more than 29,000 rides. The following weekend saw more than 18,000 rides for the Cincinnati Bengals’ first home game and for MidPoint Music Festival. Service was extended until 2 a.m. after last week’s Thursday night Bengals game to accommodate fans.

“Real progress in Cincinnati is finally coming to fruition with the streetcar’s debut,” says Ian Budd, who runs ICB Audio and Video in Cincinnati and has lived in Newport since 1979. And he’d like to see it expand.
 
“Most sensible people see that it will be more successful if it’s expanded up the hill to the UC area," he says. "A longer route that also includes Northern Kentucky will serve more people, give the line more scale and make it more attractive to potential users.”

Budd chairs the Northern Kentucky Streetcar Committee. He and other supporters are convinced that a spur from Cincinnati’s streetcar line across to Newport and eventually to Covington will benefit both sides of the river.
Street car expansion spur plans.
Supporters champion connecting the region’s two largest employment centers, saying a streetcar line “up the hill” would trigger millions of dollars of new mixed-use development geared to downtown workers, UC students and staff and uptown hospital employees.

And that’s a trend that’s playing out nationally.

Launched in May, the Kansas City Streetcar line is so overcrowded that officials plan two separate route expansions and will buy two more streetcars to add to the existing four. That line is most closely compared to Cincinnati’s because they’re similarly sized Midwestern cities using the exact same streetcar vehicles — though Kansas City’s line is permanently free to ride because operations are funded by a local sales tax. 

Meanwhile, the federal government recently announced a $500,000 grant to the Atlanta Streetcar to study expanding its single downtown line with 16 miles of new routes, and it awarded $1 billion to extend San Diego’s light rail system by 11 miles.

“Every modern streetcar or light rail system launched in the U.S. has expanded or is seriously talking about expanding,” says John Schneider, Cincinnati’s longtime rail transit advocate. “Some are more successful than others, but what they all have in common is that the starter lines turned an abstract idea into a tangible product that removed all the initial doubts.”
 

‘More support than we expected’

A consensus is forming in Newport, at least in certain circles, about returning streetcar service to Northern Kentucky and attracting the kind of economic development action that currently surrounds the Cincinnati Streetcar.
 
The Northern Kentucky Streetcar Committee envisions that a connection from Cincinnati’s streetcar line at Second/Third and Main streets in front of Great American Ball Park would cross the Taylor-Southgate Bridge to West Newport. That area near Newport on the Levee and the Newport Aquarium is poised for explosive growth when the AA Highway (State Rt. 9) extension opens near the proposed site for Corporex’s Ovation residential/office/retail complex.

Budd and NeIan Budd and Newport City Commissioner Beth Fennell are spearheading efforts to raise local awareness and funds.wport City Commissioner Beth Fennell visited Washington, D.C. in February to make contacts, get feedback on the streetcar idea and learn about next steps. They met with officials from the Department of Transportation, the Federal Transportation Administration and the offices of Sen. Mitch McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Thomas Massie.

The Department of Transportation suggested that the group apply for a DOT grant to do a proper feasibility study on the streetcar extension, which the committee did. Budd says he’ll find out soon, perhaps by the end of October, if the effort results in a $300,000 grant.

“We might have to go back again, but we won’t be discouraged if we don’t receive the grant on our first try,” he says. “We’re in a much better position now that the Cincinnati Streetcar is running and we’re asking to add on to a successful existing line instead of starting from scratch.”

The federal government will fund these types of transit projects only if local sources contribute as well, Budd says, and so he and his committee have been meeting with elected officials, corporate leaders, neighborhood groups and other stakeholders to explain their concept and seek support.
 
Budd says he’s been pleased that so far, unlike the years of political bickering that threatened to derail the Cincinnati Streetcar project, the Northern Kentucky streetcar concept has been warmly received.
 
“We’ve had no negative responses at all, no anti-growth rhetoric like in Cincinnati,” he says. “I’m not sure why, but we seem to work together well in Newport and Campbell County. You’re never going to get 100 percent buy-in on anything, but we’ve found more support than we expected.”
 
On the official planning front, OKI has included phase 1 of the Northern Kentucky Streetcar on the recommended NKY projects list in its 2040 Regional Transportation Plan. The area’s transit agency, TANK, is waiting to see if the broader community embraces the concept.
 
“TANK is aware of public support for the Northern Kentucky Streetcar because we’ve met with them and explained our project,” Budd says. “Now we need to do a full feasibility study to prove its validity.”
 
TANK hasn’t included a streetcar or any type of rail in its long-range planning goals, General Manager Andrew Aiello says, but he’ll continue to listen to this discussion and offer technical expertise as needed.
 
“Ultimately, our community and our elected officials will decide if this or other rail projects become a reality in NKY,” Aiello says. “Regardless, it’s great to hear yet another discussion about how public transit can encourage economic development and improve access to jobs.”
 

‘We can learn from the past’

Economic development and growth are at the heart of all public transportation projects, especially streetcars, Schneider says. He points out that the first page of his first report on reintroducing rail transit to Cincinnati 15-plus years ago specified that the main goal was repopulating the region’s urban core.
 
“Streetcars and light rail aren’t about tourism or nostalgia or giving Cincinnati a ‘cool’ factor,” Schneider says. “They’re part of the development puzzle along with housing, offices, parks, attractions. They help make living downtown more affordable by allowing you to maybe live without a car, and then instead of spending $10,000 a year on gas, maintenance and parking you spend it on other things in your neighborhood and in your city.”
 
Transit-oriented development has been building communities across Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky for generations, especially during streetcars’ heyday in the first half of the 20th Century. The history of Northern Kentucky’s Green Line is a prime example.
 
Bellevue native Nick Rechtin is a retired teacher who enjoys researching local history, serving as a tour guide for retirees and driving the Southbank Shuttle through Cincinnati, Covington and Newport. He thinks the success of Northern Kentucky’s original streetcar network can help build support for Cincinnati Streetcar’s southern expansion.
 
The Green Line was the result of mergers among various early local streetcar systems, which at their height served Ludlow, Covington, Newport, Bellevue and Dayton along the riverfront; travelled as far south as Ft. Mitchell, Latonia and Ft. Thomas; and navigated downtown Cincinnati streets before making Dixie Terminal their home base at Third and Walnut. The last Green Line streetcar ran in 1950.
 
Rechtin says Ft. Mitchell civic leaders pushed for an extension of the early streetcar network out to their remote community in the late 1800s, hoping to connect locals to jobs in Covington and Cincinnati, and to develop more housing and businesses for an expected influx of new residents. They invested in a private right-of-way from Covington that became Green Line’s route #1, which literally helped put Ft. Mitchell on the map.
 
The same thing happened in Ft. Thomas, which helped develop route #11 up the hill along the private right-of-way and onto its streets. TANK’s bus route #1 follows almost the same path today as the streetcar did, serving Ft. Mitchell on its way to Florence; bus route #11 still connects Ft. Thomas to Cincinnati, Covington and Newport.
 
Rechtin says that city fathers 100 years ago probably didn’t understand they were promoting transit-oriented development, but their legacy is evident across the region. Park Hills, for instance, was developed as infill housing around a streetcar stop between Devou Park and Ft. Mitchell, and two original tiled-roof streetcar stations remain standing in a small park on Amsterdam Road.
 
“Those communities were developed in a planned, thoughtful manner, which is why they’re still here,” Rechtin says of how the Green Line’s history resonates today. “We can learn from the past and get beyond simple nostalgia. In sum, we can continue to widen our streets and highways or build toward density and a human scale.”
 
Budd is confident that the streetcar’s return to Northern Kentucky is a matter of “when” and “where,” not “if.”
 
“Most of the hard and expensive work is already done in Cincinnati,” he says. “They built a maintenance facility, bought the vehicles, worked out an operating contract to run the system and introduced the concept to a skeptical public. To get streetcars to Newport, all we have to do is lay tracks and string electric wires, which could go very quickly once we start.”

Read more articles by John Fox.

John Fox is an experienced freelance writer and editor who served as managing editor of Soapbox from December 2014 to August 2016.
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