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Northern Kentucky Leaders: It's Time to Talk About a Streetcar

Many people from Northern Kentucky become frustrated from sitting in traffic and battling for parking spaces every day as they commute across the river to their jobs. As the urban core of the region's three largest river cities—Cincinnati, Newport, and Covington—grows more dense each year, relief from the increasing traffic that congests the area's interstate highways continues to be on the minds of the various city officials.

One such official is Newport City Commissioner Beth Fennell who recently expressed her interest in returning to the discussion table about a mass transit system that could connect Newport to both Covington and to Cincinnati.

“I would like to pursue what's happening with light rail and see if we can get our oar in the water again," Fennell said. "I know Covington wants to do it and we need Covington, Newport and Cincinnati to work together on this.”

Last November, when Cincinnati's streetcar project was in political jeopardy, Fennell expressed a similar sentiment.

Covington Mayor Sherry Carran is indeed eager to begin discussion on bringing light rail to the area as she sees it becoming a vital effort for the region's continued growth.

“I believe we have to have a discussion and I believe it is something we need to be planning,” Carran said. “Getting into the alternative transportation discussion I know is going to be difficult, but I've heard that there are people in Northern Kentucky, not just myself, who also have an interest. I'm doing what I can to learn more about it and trying to get connected to it because at some point in time, I believe it is something that we need to consider.”

Both Fennell and Carran have served on the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments Board that commissioned a major comprehensive engineering study of the the entire Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky region in 2002 to assess the concerns, feasibility and scope of a streetcar initiative that would have connected the three cities with a central-loop circulator. The study identified the major commuting problems of the area.

(SEE ALSO: That One Times in the 1990s Where We Almost Had Passenger Rail from Covington to Blue Ash)

One such problem was the difficulty to identify and negotiate the bridge connections across the river, especially for visitors not familiar with the area, perhaps recently exemplified by the accident on the Brent Spence Bridge involving a man from Cleveland that caused another vehicle to topple down to the lower North-bound corridor of the bridge. Another was how the transportation system that links the central riverfront areas of Cincinnati, Covington and Newport has reached its maturity and of how the system tends to break down during special events like Bengals and Reds games. Lastly, the study found a shortage of parking in the Cincinnati central business district and said that if the cities were linked more efficiently, parking in Newport and Covington could be utilized.

A few things have changed since then, but many of the same transportation problems remain.

John Deatrick, Executive Project Manager of the Cincinnati Streetcar talked with The River City News about the 2002 Study and the feasibility of bringing the plans back into the fold to connect the three cities by rail.

“At the time of the study, there were a lot of jokes about how no one used the Clay Wade Bailey or the Taylor-Southgate Bridge but now the traffic volume on those bridges have picked up quite a bit and Kentucky now realizes the value of the relief function those bridges provide when the interstate either gets shut down or congested,” Deatrick said.

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Construction on Cincinnati's Streetcar line/via Streetcar's Facebook page

The only current inter-city circulator in place besides buses is the Southbank Shuttle that runs through Covington, Newport and downtown Cincinnati, and follows approximately the same route the light-rail central loop would have used. The difference though is that rail is more permanent, and that permanency tends to help out business near the track.

“Success of streetcars in various parts of the country has pointed out that it tends to spark economic development better than rubber tire circulators like the Southbank Shuttle," Deatrick said. "By tying aspects of the region together physically, it helps them function better as a unit.”

While light rail transit is typically used for short to medium length trips, streetcars are designed to be used in dense urban settings, such as serving downtown venues where speed and system capacity are not the primary objective. The Central Loop Study stated that the streetcar alignment for the loop circulator could have been designed to accommodate light rail vehicles; however, it said that streetcars were more suited to this application and that it was likely that streetcar vehicles would have used this alignment on a daily basis.

Two new major construction initiatives near the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky have re-ignited the talks by local city officials. In Newport, the approved development of Lot B adjacent to the Gallery Building on the Levee to construct a new building that will include residential apartments, an 800-car garage, a hotel and retail space will effectively close part of Saratoga Street near the flood wall where the new building will be erected. Commissioner Fennell believes the upcoming project is a chance to include infrastructure that could facilitate local transportation on rail.

“My bottom line is that nothing that we do on our end should preclude rail at some point in time,” she said. “Until I really looked over the closing of part of Saratoga Street that we agreed upon Monday, I wanted to make sure that it wasn't going to in anyway keep rail from coming over the L&N Bridge, if we ever got to that point.”

Fennell said that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has never been really excited about putting rail on an existing bridge, so keeping that option of rail on the L&N Bridge (or the Purple People Bridge as it is also known) might be most logical since it's already a pedestrian-friendly area that the city of Newport is trying to build more excitement around.

On the Covington end, the top issue for city officials is how to move forward on the massive project of a new Brent Spence Bridge Corridor. While there are no plans to accommodate rail or other public transportation lanes in the design of the new bridge, Mayor Carran sees the need for such corridors into Cincinnati and Newport.

“People want growth in this region and where there is growth, there is more people and where there is more people there are more cars,” Carran said. “There's no way we're going to be able to build all the concrete blacktop transportation corridors that will be needed. Bus transportation, the Southbank Shuttle, those are good modes of transportation, but in this day and age everybody seems to be rushed for time so having a designated lane for something like the street car that is going on over in Cincinnati or light rail out to the airport makes sense.”

The Brent Spence Bridge Corridor project is estimated to cost upwards of $2.6 billion and finding the funding to build it has been Carran's biggest challenge of late. Every financing option presented by Kentucky and Ohio has included a tolling mechanism. Carran says that there is a certain collective mind frame in the area that has not embraced forward thinking of paying for the transportation improvements. She points to Tea Party organizations like the Hartland Institute as the most vocal voice of opposition.

“They want the federal government to pay for it but yet they're the ones who advocate less government and no new taxes. Now they want the federal government to come in and pay for the whole new bridge. The mind frame is, how am I going to benefit from this, not what's going to be best for our region or our community as a whole.”

The 2002 study showed that the cost of the Central Loop Streetcar system that would have connected the three urban cores of the cities was estimated to come in around $215 million, but that cost would almost certainly be higher today.

“Because these projects are expensive, it would involve anybody and everybody that could possibly contribute money to it,” explained Fennell. “If it's going to go across the L&N Bridge, that's owned by the Cincinnati Newport Bridge Company so they would have to approve it. I'm sure KYTC would have to be involved. I'm sure we would have to get the state of Kentucky involved in other ways, we would try to find federal money," Fennell said. "Any kind of option available for funds for it I'm sure would be explored.”

Carran sees the beginning of talks about the issue being perhaps the most crucial stage to implement the idea into reality.

“The light rail discussion really has not occurred in Northern Kentucky for some time, and it's going to take a little bit to even get the discussion going again. Its very, very important as to how those discussions begin because I think with the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor, they kind of got off on the wrong foot which got things out of hand a little bit," Carran said. "Its just a matter of getting the right people at the table and getting the timing right.”

Any kind of large transportation initiative would almost certainly come down to a vote by the region's citizens and the political will of those residents would have to change since 2002 when the measure was decisively voted down by 68 percent of Hamilton County voters. The first challenge on changing that voter attitude on the Kentucky side would be to convince people of the sheer feasibility of the project.

“Is it feasible? Yes, it's feasible and I think it's something that's needed and hopefully in some point of time we have it, but I think we still have a ways to go before it begins at least on the Northern Kentucky side. I think there has to be a change in mindset that we have here right now.”

Many policy makers who have studied information on the economic ramifications that a street car or light rail system provides, see a potentially cohesive region that is physically connected with rail as a possible boon for the area's business community.

“If you can link at least Newport, Covington and Cincinnati together, it would help take care of the congestion problem that you're getting from commuters at certain parts of the day between cities and it would allow them to function as an economic unit so that the metropolitan area would be viewed as a larger city rather than individual cities on their own. So I think that physical connection is really important,” Deatrick said.

Another hurdle in the way of making the idea a reality are the bridges themselves. Certainly a new study would likely have to take place before any shovels hit the dirt on a such a project, and a crucial area of that study would focus on the bridges. Deatrick says that there are some new factors to account for.

“It would probably be helpful if it were studied again and then how that could link into a regional rail plan, because right now the regional rail plan is fairly old and some things have changed with the availability of ride away and so forth. You also have the eastern corridor that is now showing some signs of life on the Ohio side of the river," Deatrick said. "Whether there would have to be a new bridge or some modification to one of the existing bridges, I don't know. It would take some pretty comprehensive thinking about the routes it would take. In Covington, with the new Gateway campus, that changes things a little bit too.”

Despite the challenges and potential political backlash Fennell, Carran and other elected officials who support a major public-transit initiative may incur from it, they see the idea as a way to better prepare for the region's future, albeit a distant one.

“Any kind of forward thinking city has some form of light transit,” Fennell said.

“It would be poor vision not to have the discussion to even consider it, so I think it's going to happen and hopefully the more people in Northern Kentucky begin to realize that, it becomes more on our radar screen than what it is right now,” said Carran.

So while discussions involving a major project that includes installing rails for a streetcar or light-rail system in Northern Kentucky are in the very early stages, and any real movement on the issue is still likely years away, the interest to begin such an initiative can be openly heard at city meetings in both Newport and Covington. With patience, persistence and cooperation of the three cities involved, perhaps one day for Kentucky residents, commuting north to their jobs will be less of a hassle.

Written by Bryan Burke, Associate Editor