CINCINNATI - On the cusp of the streetcar's second anniversary, Cincinnati Bell has contacted the City of Cincinnati and said it has qualms about continuing to pay for the naming rights of the streetcar, a source told The Enquirer.
The company – whose sponsorship prompted the project to be named the Cincinnati Bell Connector – contacted the city this week with the news and was expected to follow up Friday, the source said.
Cincinnati Bell officials confirmed on Friday they have talked to the city.
"Cincinnati Bell has concerns about the streetcar's performance, which we have shared with the city," the company said in a statement. "At this time, however, no decision has been made regarding our sponsorship."
If Bell drops out, it could be catastrophic to the streetcar's bottom line.
The streetcar has struggled to find riders, and revenue sources such as advertising and fares have fallen short.
In 2016, just before the streetcar was set to begin running, Cincinnati Bell signed a 10-year deal worth $3.4 million to put its name on the Downtown and Over-the-Rhine streetcar. It was a major milestone for a project that has long been seeking support from the corporate community.
The streetcar is a city project, but it is overseen by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority. Paul Grether, SORTA's director of rail services, told The Enquirer Friday night that he had not heard there were issues with Cincinnati Bell.
Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, never a fan of the streetcar, said losing Cincinnati Bell would be "another major major blow to the financial viability of the of the streetcar."
If Bell drops out, Smitherman said, council would need to adjust the operating budget of the streetcar or find another sponsor quickly.
The question is, could the company break the 10-year naming rights contract? The contract allows for the dissolution of the deal in the case the streetcar is disparaged or ridiculed. But has that happened?
Bell's contract with the city and related parties gives the company the right to terminate the agreement if an act or failure to act bring the parties "into disrepute, contempt, scandal, ridicule or competitive disadvantage or causes material harm to the reputation or business interests of Cincinnati Bell."
The streetcar launched on September 9, 2016, with 18,141 riders. That opening weekend – Friday, Saturday, Sunday – drew 50,646 riders.
But ridership quickly plummeted.
In its first year, the streetcar averaged 2,012 riders a day, well below projections.
So far in its second year, a little more than a week from the second anniversary, the streetcar has averaged about 1,412 riders a day, again below projections.
The streetcar does well during big events. It drew nearly 27,000 riders during Blink last October, for example, and more than 4,000 riders for the Reds opening day. But the day-to-day has never lived up to the vision.
Part of the problem is a lack of reliability, with the streetcar missing its promised 12- and 15-minute waits between cars or headways. Contributing to the unreliability are frequent track blockages, a problem that seems to be getting worse rather than better. In August, the tracks were blocked 187 times, according to data from the transit authority. A year ago in August, that only happened 38 times.
The streetcar has been controversial from the start. Supporters love it, and detractors hate it.
But that criticism is not necessarily directed at Cincinnati Bell, which could be crucial when it comes to the legality of terminating the naming agreement.