Now that Issue 7 has passed, it's time to re-start the streetcar and make it a zero-fare system. Here are some idea on how to pay for that.
We’ve seen the benefits of eliminating fares in the successful Blink and Ride Free with Your Reds Ticket promotions, and it’s time to permanently increase our ridership by transitioning to a zero-fare system. Simply put, no other policy or combination of policies will be as effective for increasing ridership as removing the fare barrier.
Fare-free Kansas City has five times the ridership as our system. Tampa had middling ridership for a decade that tripled almost overnight after going zero-fare, and Milwaukee has 50% higher ridership than our system using a sponsorship zero-fare model. Washington DC and Tacoma are two other examples of high ridership zero-fare streetcar systems.
Ideally this restart would also be accompanied by signal prioritization, re-timing of signals, re-timing of the pedestrian walk phases at the mid-block crossings on Walnut and Main and Green and Race (these signals alone add 1 minute and 16 seconds to every single streetcar trip, this is the lowest hanging fruit), and increased enforcement related to blocking the tracks; however, re-launching with a zero-fare system will be the biggest driver of increased ridership.
Net Fare revenue for the CBC for FY20 is estimated at $70,834. Currently Transdev pays for the cost of the CPD Officers on the streetcars checking fares (estimated at a cost of $120,000 per year). If we move to zero-fare, I believe the City of Cincinnati will have to take over the cost of security, increasing the total cost for a zero-fare system to $150,000.
To reach our goal of a zero-fare system, we can either raise the $150,000 or reduce the cost of going zero-fare. One easy cost saver would be to use Downtown Ambassadors rather than uniformed CPD Officers to provide security on the CBC. Another potential cost saver would be to negotiate with Transdev and see if we could get them to agree to perhaps splitting the cost of security on the CBC, potentially saving them $60,000.
On the increasing revenue side, here are my suggestions. The entire $150,000 (or less if we use Downtown Ambassadors for security) doesn’t have to be raised by a single new or expanded source of revenue, several of the below options could be employed to raise the total amount needed:
1. Restore Parking Meters at Washington Park- When Washington Park was renovated, all the parking around the park was removed. By my rough estimation, there’s room for about 57 parking spaces. The revenue from those meters would cover the lion’s share of the amount we need to raise for a zero-fare system and add 57 much needed new parking spots to Over-the-Rhine.
2. Increase Parking Infraction Fine $3- Increasing the fine for parking tickets from $65 to $68 would raise enough money to make the streetcar zero-fare.
3. Increased Advertising Revenue- Increasing ridership will increase the value of advertising on the streetcar and may attract new advertisers. Additionally, we should expand where ads can be placed on the streetcars and at the stops. Sell ads on everything, every seat, the floors of the cars, the ceilings, put special panels on the railings at the stops. A free, gaudy system will attract more riders than we have presently.
4. Use a Portion of the Proposed Over-the-Rhine Special Improvement District- The proposed OTR SID will generate $650,000 per year. Either increasing the size of the SID ask or using a portion of the SID could cover some of the cost of free fares.
5. Add FC Cincinnati Stadium to the SID- The current SID footprint is just OTR south of Liberty. Adding the FC Cincinnati Stadium to the SID would generate more than enough for free fares.
6. Add North of Liberty to SID- Arguably nowhere along the streetcar line benefits more than North of Liberty. Extending the SID to cover this area would be a logical expansion and help fund free fares.
7. Add Pendleton to the SID- The Pendleton Community Council boundaries extend all the way to Main Street, so the streetcar is located in Pendleton according to their Community Council Boundaries. Extending the SID to include Pendleton could increase the funding available for free fares.
8. Pendleton Park by Phone- In Over-the-Rhine, there are places where you can park by phone in the residential parking district during the day. This program could be expanded to Pendleton’s residential parking district and the revenue used to fund a zero-fare system.
9. 3rd Party Service Provider Contract Reduction- If we could identify a 3rd party service provider (for example, if Paycor did the City’s payroll) who would agree to reduce their contract price by $150,000, we could then offer to give them the advertising for underwriting free fares. The cost to the 3rd Party wouldn’t be the full amount, only what their profit margin would have been on the service, but the savings to the City of Cincinnati would be the same.
10. New Community Authority Funding- The Banks has a new community authority that generates approximately $500,000 a year from a 1% sales tax. Using 10% of this fund to increase connectivity to the Banks with a zero-fare streetcar could boost business at the Banks, especially during the Reds and Bengals offseason.
11. Voluntary “New Community Authority”- While a New Community Authority has specific requirements regarding property ownership in the district, several of the larger landlords along the route (e.g. 3CDC, Model, Urban Sites) could agree to include a “voluntary” surcharge in their leases and use these funds to underwrite free fares.
12. Federal CMAQ Funding- OKI distributes congestion mitigation/air quality funds from the Federal Government. The CBC is a zero-emission vehicle that also uses much less street space per passenger than any other motorized form of transportation in the region, we might be eligible for funding under this program.
13. Parking Ticket Amnesty- The City of Cincinnati is owed over $10 million in unpaid parking tickets. We could propose a one-time amnesty and use the money raised for free fares several years.
14. Sell Outstanding Parking Tickets to a Debt Collector- If allowed by law, we could sell the outstanding parking tickets to a debt collector. If they buy it up for ten cents on the dollar, that could endow free fares for about eight years if the principal can make a 3% return on investment.
15. Garage Naming Rights- The City of Cincinnati owns several garages in the urban core. We could sell the naming rights and use the funds to help cover free fares. A free streetcar might make garages like the one at 9th and Vine more popular and increase parking revenue there as well.
16. Reducing Service Hours, Redistributing Funds- Currently we have abysmally low ridership in the very early morning and very late at night. If we cut service during these hours, we can either re-distribute them to when we have high ridership or use the savings to make the system zero-fare.
17. Property Taxes from Fountain Square West- The City of Cincinnati has been paying approximately $600,000 in property taxes annually for this property. If we use 25% of what we had spent on those property taxes, we can make the system free.
18. "Kill Grill" Increased Parking Costs- There’s been a trend in SUVs and Trucks to make the height of the hoods higher and higher. This design trend greatly increases the chance of a fatality if a pedestrian is struck. To disincentivize these vehicles, improve pedestrian safety and advance our “Vision Zero” program, we should charge higher parking rates for these unsafe vehicles and use the proceeds for a zero-fare system.
19. Kilowatt Hour Tax- Columbus makes $3.4 million per year from a Kilowatt Hour Tax. I don’t know if the City of Cincinnati is able levy this tax or if it already does, but it might be worth looking into.
20. Parking Tax- Cleveland charges an 8% parking tax on commercial parking facilities. If Cincinnati charges a parking tax at any rate, it should cover the cost of free fares.
21. Private Donations- Private Companies could donate funds to make the streetcar free similar to purchasing the naming rights.
22. Increase Parking Fines along the Route- Currently the fine for parking improperly and blocking the streetcar is $100. We should increase the fine to $250 (same as parking in a handicap space). The streetcar was deliberately made to have no steps and level boarding for maximum accessibility. Blocking it should be like blocking a handicapped space. Additionally, we should hold commercial drivers to a higher standard and increase the fine for commercial vehicles to $500 increasing to up to $1,000 for repeat offenders. One commercial citation per day would generate enough revenue for us to adopt a zero-fare policy.
23. Eliminate First Ten Minutes Free- According to the DCI Website, the first ten minutes of parking at downtown meters are free (please confirm, this may have already been eliminated). While this program was likely designed for allowing free parking for someone going inside a store to run a quick errand, in all likelihood most people just get ten free minutes. If we eliminate this program, the additional revenue could be used for a zero-fare system. If there are business like a dry-cleaners that rely on the ten minute free parking, we could install a green ten minute free parking meter in front of their establishments.
24. Expand the Downtown SID- The Downtown Special Improvement District will be up for renewal next year. SID’s require property owners holding 60% of the frontage to be approved. The casino is not currently in the SID. Adding the casino could increase the funds available for a zero-fare system. If casino would vote “no”, Yeatman’s Cove and Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park could also be added to create new frontage that would counteract the casino’s “no” vote. This technique could also be used to increase the total amount raised by the SID and dedicate a small portion of those funds to a zero-fare streetcar. If the Downtown SID, OTR SID and Banks New Community Authority gave $50,000 per year each, we would have enough for a free system in perpetuity.
25. Electric Leaf Blowers- Everyone hates leaf blowers, they’re loud, they pollute heavily and they don’t really seem to work that well. The City of Cincinnati should require electric leaf blowers, but allow non-electric leaf blowers if you pay an annual fee, perhaps $100 a year for residential uses and $1,000 a year for commercial uses.
26. Legalized Sport Betting- In the event sports betting is legalized and it is handled by the casino commission and not the lottery, use the incremental increase in the casino fund to make a zero-fare system.
27. Download an App, Ride Free- This proposal wouldn’t make the streetcar a zero fare system, but could be used as a promotion to test free-fare usage. Some months ago, I attended the College Football Hall of Fame and admission was free if you downloaded the Chic-fil-a app. I downloaded the app and then deleted it after I was in the museum, but the promotion got me to download the app in the first place. I would imagine many visitors keep the app on their phone, but in the case of the streetcar, many more people will plan on riding again and retain the app. A company like Kroger or P&G might sponsor this promotion for three months at $0.50 per rider showing the app with a maximum payment of $50,000 (I’m just throwing out numbers here). Kroger benefits by getting customers to download the app and keep it on their phones and since the entire streetcar isn’t free, standard ticket checking will occur under the existing contract, reducing the City of Cincinnati’s direct costs.
I’m confident using one or more of the above funding sources we can cobble together the funds needed to make Cincinnati Bell Connector a zero-fare system and enable it to live up to its full potential.