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Cover Story: All Aboard? Not

Rail plans and planners clashing over the type of trains to use, where to put them and whether they should be used at all

By Kris Royer Henninger · April 8th, 1999 · Cover Story
  Jim Duane, executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Council of Governments (OKI), says local funding issues and other problems that are blocking the Tristate�s light-rail project soon will be resolved.
Jymi Bolden

Jim Duane, executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Council of Governments (OKI), says local funding issues and other problems that are blocking the Tristate�s light-rail project soon will be resolved.

It's 2035. Cincinnati has averted a worldwide fuel shortage. With gasoline at $4.50 a gallon, many Tristate residents have curtailed their driving. From the north, commuters have been getting to work by light rail for about 20 years now. From the east and west, they're also using rail lines. Once downtown, some riders continue their commute in smaller, automated trains that drop them off inside their office buildings.

The interstate traffic jams are gone. The threat of federal sanctions prompted by repeated smog violations are long forgotten.

"I envision downtown at the center of things again, making it a hub," said John Schneider, transportation and riverfront adviser for Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI) -- the non-profit group formed to spur downtown revitalization.

Indeed, in 1999, a Tristate in which the city of Cincinnati has returned to being the core of the area is a vision. Some would call it a wild hallucination.

Also somewhat difficult to envision are plans, in the making since 1993, to build a light-rail line from Paramount's Kings Island to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Taking the vision a step further are proposals for commuter rail lines from the east and west sides to downtown as well as lines along Interstate 75 and Sky Loop cars, which Northern Kentucky planners say will drop commuters off inside their office buildings.

The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), which is planning the light-rail line along Interstate 71, says it will surmount the roadblock that emerged last month when the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) ruled there were too many unanswered questions in the plan for it to get federal funding.

And proponents of plans -- independent of OKI's I-71 and eastern corridor studies -- for commuter rail lines from the east and west are stepping up calls to act now. The work needs to occur while a crucial intermodal transit center is being built downtown, they say.

"We already have so much of the infrastructure in place in the city," said Cincinnati Councilman Todd Portune who has proposed a commuter-rail line from downtown west to Lawrenceburg, Ind., east to Lunken Airport, Hyde Park and Milford and north from downtown through the Mill Creek Valley. "We should use it to its maximum potential to retain residents and businesses and to grow."

Portune said the advantages to his plan are that existing rail lines could be used, making the project less expensive and less difficult to implement than light rail along the I-71 corridor.

But whether it's light rail, powered by electricity, or commuter rail powered by diesel fuel, the proponents all face opposition.

Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin, who also is a member of OKI's I-71 corridor oversight committee, said light rail did not provide enough benefit to justify the cost. Also opposed is U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati. And U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park, has said he will not fully support the project until a local funding plan is in place.

"It costs a potful of money and has no benefit in air quality, the relief of traffic congestion or the time of travel," Dowlin said.

Build it and they'll come
Dowlin favors transportation systems management (TSM), one of the alternatives OKI considered before deciding on light rail. TSM includes expanding the bus system, traffic engineering improvements, freeway ramp monitoring and high occupancy vehicle lane bypass ramps for use by vehicles carrying more than one person.

An expanded bus system that includes more east-west routes, for example along Ronald Reagan Highway, would make more sense than a light-rail system aimed at transporting people downtown, Dowlin said.

Both the current bus system and light rail are focused on getting people downtown because planners argue that there are more jobs there, Dowlin said.

But, he said, the fact of the matter is that there are more jobs in Blue Ash and Sharonville combined than there are downtown.

Light rail, he said, was chosen for politically correct reasons. Being able to point to a regional rail system that stretches from the airport to Kings Island just sounds better than expanded bus lines, he said.

"We went with light rail because it was sexier," he said. "(But) there's not enough population density to make it work."

Getting the population density needed to support it means building high-rise apartments along the corridor, which is contrary to the city's plan for increased home ownership in the city, he said.

Schneider, like all regional experts, agrees that population is declining within the city of Cincinnati as well as Hamilton County.

"We want to give people a reason to move back," he said.

But Dowlin said that if light rail were built and no one rode it, tracks, overhead wires and an expenditure of about $1.2 billion would remain. If a bus line were expanded and no one used it, the problem would be solved simply by discontinuing the service, he said.

Light rail proponents say that scenarioisn't relevant.

"People don't need to worry that this will be a wasteful plan," Schneider said.

Funding causes little worry
Because there is so much competition among cities for federal light-rail funds, OKI's plan would be rejected early on if it was not a good one, Schneider said.

The Federal Transit Administration already has said it would not fund the project if it was asked to do so today. The FTA, in March, released findings of an analysis that said the proposed plan should not get federal funding because there is no plan for providing local, matching funds; there is no oversight organization designated to run it; the population is expected to decrease in most parts of the corridor; and, the environmental benefits will be small.

But Jim Duane, OKI executive director, said the findings were no cause for concern.

"This rating is exactly what we could have predicted at this early stage," he said.

He said that the FTA evaluated information that was over a year old, and that OKI was in the process of addressing the issues noted in the analysis, including forming a committee to look at funding issues and studying the environmental and economic impact. In addition, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), which operates the Metro bus system, and the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK), have agreed to look at joint operation of the system. It is likely that SORTA and TANK also would be responsible for the construction of the system, said Warner Moore, OKI project manager.

Moore said OKI would release the results of an economic benefits study in the next three to four weeks.

By the end of 2000, OKI plans to complete its preliminary engineering analysis and prepare a detailed cost estimate as well as an environmental impact study. The remaining parts of the development plan then will be the creation of the final design and construction of the rail line and stations.

One of the questions now under debate is where the line would cross the Ohio River into Covington. OKI is considering either using the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge or building a new bridge just east of there. Using the existing bridge would cost $5 million, while building a new one would cost $45 million.

Schneider, who would like to see light rail cross into both Covington and Newport, said the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet told OKI that neither the Taylor Southgate Bridge nor the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge could be used for light rail. The commonwealth does not want any lanes for automobiles eliminated, he said.

He would like to see light rail cross the Taylor Southgate Bridge into Newport, but declined to comment on his preference for a crossing into Covington.

Fifty percent of the project is expected to be paid for with federal funds, 25 percent shared between Kentucky and Ohio and 25 percent by local funds.

Moore said the total cost in 1997 dollars for the first 18 1/2-mile phase of the project was $600 million.

Funding options include paying for the system with a gasoline, property or sales tax or some combination of the three. Also being discussed is which counties and municipalities should be asked to contribute.

"A half-cent sales tax increase would give us all the money we need," Moore said.

Whatever funding option is chosen, Moore said he expected residents to vote in favor of a tax increase. A survey conducted in 1998 by Metro showed that 80 percent of Hamilton County residents were in favor of light rail.

The proposed $1.2 billion, 44-mile system consists of a double track line extending from two terminals located at Florence Mall and the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport through downtown Cincinnati and north to a station at Kings Mills Road.

The project would be completed in three stages, with the first phase spanning between 12th Street in Covington and the northern corporation line of Blue Ash. Phase two would extend the system to the airport and Fields Ertel Road, and the third phase would extend to Florence Mall and Kings Mills.

Light-rail transit is powered by overhead electrical wires. Each train can hold 150 to 250 passengers. The trains can reach top speeds of 50 to 60 miles per hour, though they average 25 to 30 miles per hour. Light rail can serve up to 12,500 passengers an hour, and one light-rail car can carry three times as many passengers as a bus. The life of a rail car is double that of a bus.

Stations would be located from a few blocks apart in downtown Cincinnati to a mile or two apart in suburban areas.

Trains likely would operate every 10 minutes during peak periods and every 20 to 30 minutes at other times of service, from 5:30 a.m. until midnight. Additional service would be added to serve special events.

Under the plan, bus lines also would be expanded and connect to the light-rail transit lines.

Environmental benefit touted
One of the driving forces behind the plan that supporters harp on is how heavy automobile use today is contributing to repeated air quality violations in the Tristate. The problem is ozone, which forms when sunlight reacts with pollutants like hydrocarbons -- that are emitted by gasoline-powered vehicles -- and nitrogen oxides.

Ozone levels are measured at 11 monitoring sites in the area, including three in Northern Kentucky. In 1998, the Cincinnati area had one exceedance of the air quality standard at four different monitoring sites. More than three exceedances at any site in a three-year period is supposed to result in federal sanctions on businesses and motorists.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) officials have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to loosen the monitoring standards this year. They and are not sure what control measures might be imposed for violations if the new monitoring standards are approved, said Heidi Griesmer, OEPA public information officer.

Griesmer said Cincinnati, historically, had the worst air quality in the state. The region is prone to these violations because it sits in a valley where pollution often is trapped for days before winds arrive to move it out.

Air quality near the Lebanon monitoring station might be especially bad this year because of two planned construction projects on I-71. Some fear that those projects will cause traffic backups, resulting in more pollution as cars are stuck idling on the roads. But the Ohio Department of Transportation has altered the work plan in an effort to prevent that.

E-check, although highly criticized and not without its problems, has been helping somewhat. Preliminary data from an OEPA study shows that vehicles that initially failed the E-check test for hydrocarbons improved by an average of 32 percent after repairs, Griesmer said.

Still, she said, 44 percent of ozone-causing pollutants in the Cincinnati area come from vehicles.

And with increased development in the region, there will be more cars on the road. The number of cars on the roads is increasing at a rate of three times the population in Hamilton County, DCI's Schneider said.

And experts say the Tristate's roadways are inadequate to handle the transportation needs of the next century.

If a theory of some geologists proves true, cars -- at least gasoline-powered ones -- also might not even be an option by 2050 when they expect the world to run out of oil.

David Gosling, Ohio eminent scholar in urban design at the University of Cincinnati, has been studying transportation problems and options. Many geologists think oil supplies will decrease rapidly, and might be depleted as early as the middle of the next century, he said. For that reason, and because 50 percent of the country's oil is imported from the politically volatile Middle East, Gosling said Americans needed to be less reliant on oil.

"Unless something is found to replace the gas-guzzling automobile, the future will be pretty bleak," he said.

Plans compete and complement
Light rail isn't the only plan on the table to deal with these problems.

In November, Councilman Portune filed nine motions with Cincinnati City Council for his commuter-rail plan that would use existing rail lines and be completed in three phases:

· Phase I would span east and west from downtown, connecting Lawrenceburg, Ind., with downtown, Lunken Airport, Milford and Hyde Park.

· Phase II would head north from downtown through the Mill Creek Valley.

· Phase III would be "filling in the gaps," possibly linking with light-rail in the I-71 corridor.

While the city's administrators continue to evaluate the plan, Portune said he was receiving support in varying degrees from other members of council.

"There is a majority interested in continuing to evaluate the issue," he said.

OKI being used as the sole transportation decision maker for the area poses problems, Portune said.

"OKI's direction is not compatible with our immediate concerns as a city," he said.

For example, he said, the I-71 light-rail plan promotes urban sprawl.

The city recently began discussions of its past and present transportation policies. Those discussions will continue April 12 at council's Community Development and Intergovernmental Committee meeting.

Portune said his plan was not in competition with light rail, but instead, quite compatible with it.

"My proposal comes in to make more complete the grid of public transportation," he said.

Taking rail projects one at a time, as OKI is doing, does not address the real needs of the people, Portune said. Residents not served by the I-71 light-rail project still will be asked to help fund it, not knowing when or if they will get improved public transportation in their own areas, he said.

His plan, however, serves people in both the east and west communities "right off the bat," he said.

Portune said he proposed commuter instead of light rail because the project would take advantage of existing rail lines, it could be started sooner and at a lower cost, he said. The existing rail lines cannot be used for light rail, he said.

The lines are compatible with commuter rail and exist in all but two segments: east from downtown to the Montgomery Inn Boathouse and west from downtown to Longworth Hall.

Portune said the next step was to conduct a detailed engineering analysis to determine what would be necessary to get the line completed and how much it would cost.

OKI's Duane said that although commuter rail was compatible with light rail, the I-71 light-rail project should be completed first.

Through OKI's long-range transportation plan, a priority system was created that determined that the I-71 corridor should have rail first, he said. Then, a rail systems should be built along the eastern corridor, I-75 and then the western corridor should be studied, Duane said.

OKI's eastern corridor study has recommended commuter rail from downtown to Batavia. OKI will begin looking at funding and engineering studies soon, Duane said.

"We have this massive urban region, and we can't do them all at once," Duane said.

Portune said OKI was proposing the same thing he was for the eastern corridor.

"The difference is timing," he said.

Construction on commuter rail should begin soon so that it is not left out of the intermodal transit center, Portune said.

The intermodal transit center, part of the Fort Washington Way reconstruction, will accommodate buses and rail near the riverfront.

DCI's Schneider said the underground portion of the center could accommodate special-event buses as well as commuter rail, while light rail could operate above-ground. OKI's plan calls for light rail to run in both directions on Second Street, but Schneider envisions using both Second and Third streets in order to bring light rail farther into downtown.

Duane said OKI had been working closely with Fort Washington Way developers to make sure that the intermodal transit center has room for light rail, serves the eastern corridor and has room for buses as well. But the center might be too small for all the options on the table, he said.

The construction of the center's shell is expected to be completed in August 2000 with the interior taking another year, Schneider said.

City council members and the Hamilton County commissioners will make the final decision about what is included in the center.

Schneider said making downtown Cincinnati the core for all types of transportation would help make downtown the core of the region. He envisions downtown as a place people can get to easily -- automobile, rail or bus.

Schneider said routing the light-rail line across the river, through downtown, Over-the-Rhine and the University of Cincinnati, instead of having it run along the freeway would help unify and connect areas that were close together in terms of distance but now fragmented.

"Light rail will be the thing that stitches downtown and the river together," he said.

In his work for DCI, Schneider is working on building community consensus to get the message out on why good public transit is important, and why residents should be willing to pay for it, he said.

Support for light rail is high among the public, but not among politicians, he said.

"The people are way ahead of the politicians," he said. "The politicians are afraid of the money."

He said it is likely a vote to fund light rail could be on the ballot in May 2001 with construction to start later that year.

The system could be running in 2004 or 2005, he said. ©



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