As the sounds of streetcar horns and bells bellowed through First Lutheran Church, hundreds of public transportation advocates spent their Thursday evening voicing opinions on a series of possible expansion routes for the Cincinnati Connector.
Roughly 300 people packed the Over-the-Rhine church for the first resident-led Streetcar Forum. The evening featured presentations on the history of Cincinnati’s streetcar system, how it compares to similar rail networks around the world and the Connector’s economic impact on the reemergence of the city’s urban core.
However, the most anticipated moment was the unveiling of nine potential expansion routes proposed by residents.
The proposed expansions are:
- Camp Washington Corridor: 2.5 miles
- Clifton-Walnut Hills Corridor: 3.6 miles
- Downtown-Uptown Corridor: 2.6 miles
- Downtown-OTR-West End Corridor: 1.1 miles
- Mohawk Corridor: 0.3 miles
- Kentucky Corridor: 1.6 miles (2.6 miles with Covington extension)
- South Fairmount Corridor: 2.5 miles
- Ezzard Charles Corridor: 1.2 miles
- Queensgate Corridor: 1.5 miles
You can view detailed designs of each proposal on the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for Transit and Sustainable Development website.
People asking ‘what could be’
The firm Hub+Weber Architects used input from a digital survey and social media comments to design the corridors. The origin of the expansion discussion is a Facebook post by John Schneider, known locally as “Mr. Streetcar.” He presented during the forum, which he co-hosted with Covington-based Devou Good Foundation.
“From my perspective, it is helpful that this discussion isn’t originating from City Hall,” said Daniella Beltran, an urban designer with Yard & Company and one of the presenters.
Beltran described the forum as a way for “neighbors to discuss with neighbors” the merits of one potential route compared to another; they got to talk about their experience using the streetcar and get excited about “what could be.”
The Mount Auburn resident noted a group of college-aged attendees in the front row having very animated reactions to a few of the routes presented.
“The energy of the room as a whole was very positive,” Beltran said. “With that excitement, there is also an eagerness to start digging into the details and problem-solving where there may be challenges.”
Investing in Cincinnati’s future
Following a brief question-and-answer session, forum attendees moved to a community room inside the Race Street church to rate the proposed expansions.
Schneider spent Friday morning digging through hundreds of comments scribbled on Post-its or submitted online.
Several of those comments came from Nicholas Altieri, who lives in the Mohawk District of OTR. A self-described “frequent streetcar user,” Altieri called expansion long overdue. He cited increased ridership since the Connector went free, including record-breaking totals month after month over the past year-plus.
In 2023, the system eclipsed the 1 million ridership mark for a year for the first time.
Altieri – who previously lived in the Central Business District and worked in OTR – said the streetcar spurred vital economic development along the current 3.6-mile route over the past decade.
An independent study by Urban Fast Forward in 2020 indicated that there was about $1.4 billion in development around the streetcar track between the project groundbreaking in 2012 and 2019. By comparison, the value of the development that occurred just beyond that range in OTR and the Central Business district was only about a quarter of that figure, Schneider said.
A retired real estate developer himself, Schneider emphasized that development isn’t the result of the streetcar system alone. He praised investments made in the area by the city of Cincinnati, 3CDC and other developers over the past decade. The Music Hall renovation was a major boon for the neighborhood, he said.
Still, to Schneider, the impact of the Connector is impossible to ignore. He called it a “force multiplier.”
“You just have to walk or travel around the streetcar line to see its impact,” Schneider added.
For Altieri, the streetcar is just as much about activating parts of the city, especially those suffering from years of disinvestment. Areas he admitted to never wanting to visit prior to the streetcar are now beaming with new stores and residents.
“It’s just fantastic,” he said.
To get to the nearest streetcar stop from his house, Altieri and his girlfriend walk down McMicken Avenue, past several abandoned historic buildings and a public pool that hasn’t been filled in years.
“I would love to see that same rejuvenation happen in our area,” he said.
Altieri described the forum as a “pep rally” for the streetcar. He experienced what he called a “room full of anticipation” throughout the 85-minute event. Everyone sitting by him “kind of leaned forward in unison” when the first route came up on screen.
“Cincinnati still has a lot of work ahead of it, but it’s important to get everyone excited to focus on what needs to be done,” Altieri said.
First steps in a miles-long process
Even though last night was largely positive, there were some long standing critics of the streetcar in attendance, Schneider said. He’s sure there are going to be critics of expansion plans as well.
There are also a bevy of challenges ahead for any such plans, including the most obvious question of who’s going to pay for the project.
Still, Schneider and company believe now is the time to start asking these questions, especially in light of other major development projects and discussions about generational projects occurring around town: Brent Spence Bridge, expansion of the Duke Energy Convention Center, major riverfront development in Northern Kentucky and ongoing talks about a new Hamilton County arena.
Beltran thinks having those discussions now is a great way to maximize the investment from government agencies and taxpayers.
“It would be a shame for those things to get finalized without some thought as to how the streetcar or other rail could get integrated in the future, without having to waste money to make significant alterations,” she said.
Schneider feels expansion of select routes is doable within five years. That’s assuming, he said, the city is “intentional” about moving forward and the selected route(s) doesn’t involve any bridges.
From the people to City Hall
City Council member Mark Jeffreys was the lone elected official who attended the forum. He wasn’t there in an official capacity and shied away from specific comments or routes or feasibility. But he was glad to be part of the conversation.
“I think this is super exciting,” said Jeffreys, an outspoken advocate for transportation enhancements in the city. He described the forum as “how things should happen” – from the ground up and “where there’s energy.”
“Who knows if it’s one of these routes or what will happen exactly, but this is what starts the discussion,” said Jeffreys, recently sworn in for his second term in office.
“It’s great that we have people so passionate about this subject, that they are going out and doing the work and thinking about that, because then they’ll own it,” he continued. “They’ll have a sense of ownership. When people have a sense of ownership, if ultimately a route is built, they feel like they were a part of it.”
The city is implementing its own survey on the subject right now. That will lead to further discussions about funding, operations – right now, the city of Cincinnati operates the streetcar, not SORTA – and ultimately the feasibility of building something, Jeffreys said.
Event organizers stressed that SORTA/Metro will play an important role in the talks about the expansion.
It’s important to keep thinking about “two or three steps ahead” in the process to make sure they’re aligning with the current needs of the city and not duplicating efforts.
In March 2020, Hamilton County voters approved a 0.8% sales tax increase to support funding enhanced public transportation offerings as part of the Reinventing Metro plan.
On Thursday, presenters stated they don’t envision certain proposals moving forward because they overlap with existing or planned Metro routes, namely its bus-rapid transit lines.
Jeffreys called avoiding potential redundancy “the right approach.”
Next steps for Schneider and his team are to collect more resident feedback over the next month or so before presenting the initial findings to Cincinnati City Council sometime this spring.
“This is moving the conversation along in a really positive way,” Jeffreys said. “This was a really great night for the city.”