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Cincinnati's Rail + Bus Plan = Lower Mobility Cost, Higher Quality of Life

By Light Rail Progress • October 2002

NOTE: in the election of 5 November 2002, the Cincinnati MetroMoves proposal, issue 7, failed to pass.

Expanding mobility options ... reducing mobility costs per capita ...improving urban quality of life – those are the potential rewards in store for Cincinnati-area residents if they approve the MetroMoves public transit ballot measure in November 2002. Proposed by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, the plan asks Hamilton County voters to approve a half-cent sales and use tax to be used to expand Cincinnati's currently excellent bus system (called Metro) across the entire county, to upgrade overall service, and to build a network of light rail transit (LRT) – both interurban-suburban trains and urban streetcars – and regional ("commuter") rail.

transit hubThe plan is ... well, pretty breathtaking. The bus service improvements alone are enough to make most other US cities envious. A central feature of the plan is a reorganization of the whole system around "transit hubs" – where buses, shuttles, streetcars, and/or light rail come together, so people can easily, safely, and conveniently transfer from one route to another. About 30 of these hubs, located throughout the Cincinnati region, would help create a network of interconnecting transit services (see bus system map below).

bus map

New east-west, crosstown, and cross-regional bus routes would intersect with existing and new north-south Metro routes. This "hub-to-hub" bus service would mean that riders would have no need to go downtown just to transfer. New weekday express bus routes would link the new suburban transit hubs with downtown. New weekday routes would link suburban communities with the University of Cincinnati and most major hospitals in the city's uptown area. And smaller neighborhood shuttle buses would connect neighborhood-based jobs, shopping, housing, and entertainment with transit hubs.

That's a fairly impressive grid of bus service. But it just provides the fabric of connectivity for the extensive system of rail transit lines crisscrossing the region which provide the capacity, speed, and attractive level of service needed to move many thousands of Cincinnatians quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively (see rail map, below).

San Jose LRTAll in all, sixty miles of interurban-suburban LRT services are planned in a number of routes (see photo from San Jose LRT, right):

  • I-71 "Green Line" light rail, airport to downtown to Kings island
  • I-75 "Red Line" light rail, Florence to downtown to West Chester
  • Eastside "Blue Line" light rail*, downtown to Xavier to Eastgate
  • Westside "Purple Line" light rail, downtown via I-74 to Dent
  • Crosstown "Light Green Line" light rail, Dent/Rybolt Rd. to Xavier to Eastgate
  • I-471 "Blue Line" light rail, downtown to Northern Kentucky University and AA Highway

Urban LRT electric streetcars (yellow lines on the map below) would provide reliable, high-visibility connections between central-city neighborhoods (see photo of Portland, Oregon streetcar at right):

  • Portland streetcarUptown streetcar line, running from the downtown area, along Vine Street through Over-the-Rhine to the University of Cincinnati and Mount Auburn, connecting all of these areas and the city's hospital district
  • Riverfront streetcar, connecting Cincinnati and the Northern Kentucky riverfront communities of Covington and Newport

Miami Tri-Rail passengersAnd, to provide higher-speed regional transit connectivity, an extensive regional ("commuter") passenger rail system would be installed (open orange lines on the map below; also see photo of Miami Tri-Rail passengers at left):

  • Cincinnati-Dayton commuter rail, with stops in Fairfield and Hamilton, and future highspeed service to Columbus and Cleveland (Ohio rail initiative)
  • Cincinnati-Lawrenceburg commuter rail, with future highspeed service to indianapolis, Chicago (Midwest rail initiative)
  • Cincinnati-Milford commuter rail

    rail map

    Local cost of the LRT plan is projected at $2.6 billion (total bus and rail system cost, including the federal share, is over $4.0 billion). The plan calls for the rail system to be built over 30 years, with a line connecting downtown to Blue Ash along I-71 to be built first.

    That expense must be weighed against the extensive benefits:

    • The MetroMoves plan will reduce the cost of mobility in the Cincinnati region, saving Cincinnatians bankloads of money in the long run, and freeing up consumer purchasing power for other things. Overall, automobile transportation is expensive (see Cost per Passenger-Mile of an Urban Automobile). Riding the bus is cheaper, but buses are relatively expensive to operate. LRT, streetcars, and regional rail tend to lower the cost of public transit service per passenger-mile because they attract more passengers than buses and carry them more economically (see How Light Rail Saves Operating Cost Dollars Compared With Buses and Light Rail Lowers Operating Costs). In Dallas, for example, the LRT system installed in 1996 has dropped the cost per passenger-mile by 38%, compared with buses. The American Public Transportation Association reports that for every dollar invested in light rail there will be a $6 dollar return to taxpayers.

    • Rail transit will take some of the pressure off the roadway system, providing alternative mobility options for commuters, and enabling highway dollars to be spent more efficiently. Studies show that, because additional highway capacity "induces", or generates, totally new motor-vehicle traffic, highway builders have to provide 4 new lanes just to get one, single lane of real additional capacity! Rail transit does not induce new road traffic, and, by attracting motorists, actually takes cars off the road – and out of competition for scarce parking spaces.

    • Cincinnati trafficTraffic congestion in Cincinnati seems to be growing faster than population, and even faster than road capacity is being added. According to the latest (2002) Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation institute, between 1985-2000, Cincinnati's urban area population increased about 14%, while total roadway mileage surged 45% and freeway lane-mileage grew by 20%. Yet traffic congestion – measured by the study's Travel Time index – increased 19%. Public transit – particularly rail transit – would give Cincinnatians an additional, highly attractive choice for avoiding that congestion for some or all of their daily trips. Rail transit provides an attractive, workable, low-cost, safe alternative to the "traffic battleground" – the struggle for road space and parking spaces. it means a safer, more reliable alternative to the stress and danger of the "traffic meatgrinder", the de facto battle with congestion, Road Warriors, and Road Ragers. This may not "work" for everybody all the time, but it will meet the needs of many family members much of the time – and it will be there when you need it.

    • The MetroMoves plan would bring a significant improvement in Cincinnati's urban quality of life. In city after city where light rail has been installed, neighborhood integrity has been preserved while urban livability has increased. Furthermore, small businesses along every light rail line have prospered tremendously, as LRT has brought far more exposure and customers than come by automobile. From Howard St. In Baltimore, to Pacific Ave. In Dallas, to First Ave., Morrison, and Yamhill St. In Portland, the evidence demonstrates that LRT helps small businesses thrive.

    • abandonned subwayThe MetroMoves plan would at last make effective use of Cincinnati's existing but never-used subway – 2.2 miles of concrete tubes excavated and paid for by Cincinnati taxpayers in the 1920s and 1930s, but never used. The existing subway would not only enable engineers to easily connect the east side to the west side of the proposed system – facilitating a true countywide plan – but also the tunnels are expected to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in savings (in terms of "in kind" local match for federal dollars) if the project is approved by the Federal Transit Administration.

    • Because the infrastructure for rail transit is essentially permanent, rail stimulates economic development in terms of housing, retail, and business activity around rail hubs. In city after city, LRT has solidly demonstrated its potential for stimulating and shaping adjacent real estate development at its transit stops and stations. This process both builds in ridership (e.g., trips by people living near the stations or traveling to the nearby activity centers) and raises the tax base (by increasing land and property values). Together with effective policies to manage traffic and guide land use, transit-shaped development can be a key tool in helping to contain urban sprawl. In Dallas, more than $800 million in private funds has been invested in development along DART's 20-mile Light Rail Starter System - an explosion of adjacent real estate development which materialized less than 4 years after LRT was installed.

    • Portland LRTParticularly where LRT uses existing street right-of-way, mobility and urban livability are improved. The person-moving capability of the corridor is increased – not just its vehicle-moving capacity. LRT introduces a "traffic-calming" effect, interfacing well with pedestrians and cyclists, and making urban streets far more human-scale and "livable". Throughout Europe, and in more and more American cities, surface LRT trains blithely coast by adjacent traffic, and glide thorough downtown streets, past pedestrians on wide sidewalks, past patrons in outdoor restaurants and cafes, sitting next to the tracks.

    With such a multitude of proven benefits, it would seem like the decision to implement such a program of mobility and quality-of-life improvements would be a no-brainer. But it will be an uphill struggle, especially as the plan asks Cincinnatians to approve a new tax for transportation modes most have never seen or experienced. Will a majority of Hamilton County voters be willing to take a chance on a very different mobility direction and a major change in the character of their city? We'll have to wait till November 5th for the answer to that.

    Rev. 2002/10/14

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