Free streetcar rides? City looking to boost ridership, advertisers by eliminating fares

Free streetcar rides? City looking to boost ridership, advertisers by eliminating fares
FILE PHOTO (Source: WXIX)

CINCINNATI, Ohio (WXIX) - The City of Cincinnati is seeking input on whether to make the Cincinnati Bell Connector free to ride.

In a public comment notice released Tuesday night, the city says those who wish to share feedback on the topic can attend the Major Projects and Smart Government Committee on Tuesday, Dec. 10 at City Hall to make their voices heard.

The specific topic, according to the city, is changing from a fee-based fare system to a no-fee sponsored system.

It costs $2 for a full-day pass on the streetcar as of today. Supporters of eliminating the fares say increased ridership would lead to greater advertising revenue, offsetting the funding gap in whole or in part.

The embattled streetcar system has faced a number of challenges since it launched in 2015, with faulty air compressors, broken ticket vending machines, continued track blockages and a murky leadership structure contributing to the system’s status as a political football.

Solutions were initially slow to arrive, but in May 2018 Councilmember Greg Landsman submitted a motion recommending a set of fixes, including a request for a report on the feasibility of making the streetcar free in a budget-neutral way to increase ridership.

Councilmember David Mann followed up on that motion with one of his own, asking the city to pursue the same goal.

“Eliminating fares will dramatically increase streetcar ridership and expand options for non-automotive travel to the benefit of sensible OTR development,” the motion read. “

The administration produced a report Oct. 10.

The report found 2019 fare revenue to be budgeted at $406,138, while the cost of collecting those fares was estimated at $207,700. So, if fares were eliminated, a funding gap of approximately $200,000 would have remained.

However, the streetcar safety and security review committee recommended security on the streetcar should also be increased, leading to a funding gap of approximately $300,000.

The 2020 budget currently has fare revenue at $323,834, bringing the funding gap to make the streetcar free, all other things being equal, to approximately $220,000.

Other streetcar systems across the country have had success with a free-fare model, Kansas City in particular. Mann’s original motion notes Kansas City’s annual ridership of 2 million dwarfs Cincinnati’s 600,000 count.

Kansas City funds their streetcar system with a tax assessed on properties inside a transportation development district. The system has been free to ride since day one.

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