Streetcars Return to Downtown Cincinnati

For the first time since 1951, streetcars are providing convenient and affordable public transportation in downtown Cincinnati.

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On Sept. 9, 2016, the city celebrated its new Cincinnati Bell Connector service with a weeklong celebration that included free rides for the public. An estimated 50,000 passengers took advantage of the new streetcar service during the inaugural weekend.

“The reaction has been highly positive, with solid midday ridership reported in first week of revenue operation,” said Tim Reynolds, planner for the project. “The first week of service saw an average of 3,200 riders each day, exceeding projections.”

WSP USA was the project manager and prime designer of the streetcar, and also provided construction support services through its completion. The 3.6-mile loop is operated by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA).

©WSP USA

The Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcars are the first fully low-floor streetcar vehicles in the U.S.

Seamless Transfers

The $148 million streetcar provides a speedy connection between Cincinnati’s central riverfront and historic Findlay Market, serving the city’s resurgent downtown and Over-the-Rhine neighborhoods. While the area is also served by the existing bus system, the streetcar provides a dedicated line to connect residents, employment, activities and opportunities in the city’s core.

“The streetcar is designed not only as a key mode of transportation within Cincinnati’s core, but to help expand the city’s tax base by attracting new development,” said Judi Craig, former Cincinnati area manager now in the firm’s San Francisco office. She managed government and community affairs throughout the project’s development. “The line serves a highly diverse area economically and socially, and the fare has been kept very affordable: $1 for two hours and $2 for all-day unlimited ridership.”

The streetcar was also designed to interface with the downtown’s Government Square transit hub, which allows riders to transfer between buses and streetcars. (WSP was project manager on the Government Square redevelopment project, completed in 2006.)

The streetcar line includes 18 raised platforms and custom station shelters that provide shelter from inclement weather. Since some of the stations were located within a historic district, compliance with the State Historical Office of Preservation was necessary to preserve the community’s cultural resources.

Reynolds added that the streetcar vehicles are the first fully low-floor streetcar vehicles in the U.S., creating easier access for passengers to enter and exit the car.

The streetcar is powered by an overhead electrical system and shares the street with automobile traffic in mixed-use lanes. During construction of the streetcar track system, approximately 20 inches of pavement depth and 8.5 feet in width was removed and replaced with a rail-embedded reinforced concrete slab and aggregate base.

©WSP USA

The grand opening celebration took place at the Washington Park streetcar stop, located across from the Music Hall in Over-the-Rhine.

Opening Celebration

An estimated 1,700 supporters attended opening day ceremonies on the morning of Sept. 9 at the Washington Park streetcar stop, with Cincinnati's historic Music Hall and four streetcars as the backdrop.

Cincinnati Councilmember Amy Murray led the ceremony, and introduced John Schneider, the head of the local Alliance for Transit who was instrumental in developing and pursuing the streetcar concept. Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley offered his congratulations to project supporters and the community. Also in attendance was former Mayor Mark Mallory, who committed the city to the streetcar project during his tenure; and former Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who strongly supported the project.

Additional speakers included several city council members and a representative of Cincinnati Bell. Earl Clark, 93, who rode the last Cincinnati streetcar in 1951, was a special guest at the event, as well as Mayor Charlie Hales of Portland and Mayor Sly James of Kansas City.

Free rides were sponsored by local organizations and SORTA organized a weeklong celebration that included performances and activities by arts organizations and businesses along the route. The celebration continued during its second weekend, as more than 29,000 passengers used the streetcars during Cincinnati's Oktoberfest festival – the largest of its kind outside of Germany.

“The parks and Findlay market were packed all weekend with city dwellers and visitors who enjoyed the connections that the streetcar provided,” Craig said. “A consequence of this investment was and will continue to be the opportunity for neighbors to meet one another and share their lives in a way that has never been afforded before.”

©WSP USA

The streetcar line includes 18 stations with shelters.

Since the Beginning

WSP has been involved in the streetcar since the concept was introduced in 2002 as part of the Central Area Loop Study, which the firm conducted for the OKI Regional Council of Governments, the MetroMoves Regional Rail Plan and SORTA. The firm also conducted a feasibility study in 2007.

Chris Clemons, senior civil engineer for the streetcar design, said WSP had to overcome several challenges throughout the process, but ultimately helped the city:

  • reach a consensus on the best streetcar route,
  • design the streetcar line to navigate a dense urban fabric that includes historic districts and properties,
  • coordinate the traffic and signals along the line,
  • reconfigure the project when federal funds altered its requirements,
  • coordinate with utility companies for the relocation of extensive infrastructure below the surface, and
  • value engineer the design to lower its cost when construction bids exceeded projections.

An $8.9 million, two-story, 12,460 square-foot maintenance and operations facility was also constructed in the Over-the-Rhine district and underwent a rigorous review process by the city, neighborhood and State Historic Preservation Office. The new storage yard has a capacity for 12 vehicles.

“The design of the maintenance and storage facility is modern, but its height, massing, materials and other features are compatible with the scale of the surrounding area, the largest area of Italianate architecture in the U.S.,” said Jennifer LeMasters Wirtz, project architect.

While the first phase of the streetcar project is now complete, expansion of the line is already in the works.

“Phase 2 of the project is anticipated to extend the line north of downtown to serve Cincinnati’s uptown, the University of Cincinnati and medical center district,” Reynolds said. “The city of Newport, Kentucky, located across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati, is also pursuing a feasibility study for an extension to its core area.”

“The Cincinnati Streetcar Project was both challenging and exciting from concept through construction. After years of hard work it is very gratifying to see it become a reality here in Cincinnati,” Clemons said.

“For nearly 20 years my career revolved around the quest for rail in Cincinnati,” Craig added. “There were so many people who pulled together to get this done. To finally have it operational, and so wildly successful in its initial days, confirms the planning efforts of WSP and project partners. This project is a game changer for this community.”

©WSP USA

The Cincinnati Bell Connector was designed to provide transportation options in the city’s downtown and attract new development to the area.