Source: Cincinnati Enquirer: Hannah Sparling Published April 16, 2019
On Saturday – Earth Day OTR, a local celebration two days before the national Earth Day – you can ride the streetcar for free. Take it to Washington Park to hear some reggae music. Even catch a live concert on the streetcar if you ride between 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.
It might seem like a one-off promotion, but it’s also a sign the city and new interim streetcar director Travis Jeric are testing the waters to see how the Cincinnati Bell Connector performs when riders don’t have to pay $1.
Supporters have been asking the city to make rides free since shortly after the streetcar’s debut in 2016. They point to Kansas City, which has a streetcar line similar to ours except it’s free to ride.
In March, the RideKC Streetcar got 211,456 riders.
The Cincinnati Bell Connector, by comparison, got 35,481.
The Cincinnati Bell Connector heads down Walnut Street in downtown Cincinnati, heading toward The Banks. The streetcar is operated by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA). (Photo: Liz Dufour/The Enquirer)
Cincinnati’s streetcar launched on Sept. 9, 2016. There have been good days and bad, but overall, ridership has been a disappointment, far short of projections and dropping year-over-year.
Before the line was launched, advocates predicted it would get 3,200 riders a day.
In reality, it gets about half that.
But, free days have in the past shown good results. There were five free days in November and December this past year, and the streetcar averaged 3,422 riders on those days. That’s more than 2,000 riders above the average for those months.
Jeric, the new streetcar director, said the free rides on Saturday are one step toward potentially making the system permanently free.
He is also finalizing plans for more free rides throughout the summer. Details on that could be released as early as Tuesday.
“You don’t just go diving into a pool, right?" he said. "You take a step, test the waters, see how it goes.”
It's not as simple as it might seem. Making the streetcar permanently free would require renegotiating the contracts between the city, which owns the streetcar, Cincinnati Metro, which oversees it, and Transdev, the company Metro hired to run it.
Plus, if the streetcar is free, that means no revenue from fares. So, as it stands right now, each free day requires a sponsor to make up the cost.
In March, the streetcar brought in $23,161 from fares – less than 9 percent of the overall revenue for that month and roughly $5,000 short of what was budgeted.
Sponsorship cost varies depending on the day, but Saturday’s free rides, for example, sponsored by The Cincinnati 2030 District, cost $3,268. That includes a $714 fee for increased security.
“Every last dollar helps to provide a very safe, secure system, which we have,” Jeric said. “It’s going to be another very tight budget season, so if you get rid of that revenue, you put yourself in a hole. And you then have to figure out how to make it budget neutral once again."
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