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Effort to Bring Streetcar to NKY Begins in Earnest

It's official: There is movement to connect Northern Kentucky to the Cincinnati Streetcar system.

The possibility was the topic at the Covington Business Council luncheon at the Madison Event Center on Thursday afternoon, where guest panelists included real-estate developer and transit activist John Schneider, former Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls, and current Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Seelbach, who shared their insights and challenges on the process that led to the streetcar project in the Queen City.

The big news from the meeting was the revelation that the Northern Kentucky Streetcar Committee has formed and is exploring a way to fund a feasibility study of the potential connection. Ian Budd, a leader of the committee, gave a presentation on a plan to extend the streetcar across the Taylor Southgate Bridge into Newport as the first possible additional extension into Northern Kentucky, with possible future expansion west across the Licking River into Covington.

Budd and the NKY Streetcar Committee have quietly been meeting for over a year to put together a plan. The event was moderated by Editor and Publisher of The River City News Michael Monks.

Qualls said that connecting Newport, Covington, Bellevue, and Dayton with downtown Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine is a no brainer.

“Many people simply cannot wrap their minds around the fact that you have to invest the money, just as you do with roads and bridges and highways. That then becomes the battle line that is drawn,” Qualls said. “You have some of the best neighborhoods and communities in all of this region and we need to actually capitalize on that.”

Chris Seelbach talked about the transformation he has seen in the OTR neighborhood where he lives since construction began on the $147 million project, a 3.6-mile loop from Cincinnati's riverfront through downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

“We talked about it being one of the most unsafe neighborhoods to becoming very safe,” he said. “Looking at statistics, it didn't' happen because we added 100 new cops to the streets. It didn't happen because the sidewalks are now repaired, it happened because of development. It happened because the buildings that were literally falling into the streets, have now been developed into businesses, jobs have been created, condos are selling for a half-million dollars and when we talk about how that happened, it was a combination of 3CDC and the public/private relationship but it's also because of the streetcar.”

Seelbach said that in 2013, the city was prepared to cancel the project, but that the residents who would be directly impacted by the streetcar rallied in support of its moving forward.

“Hundreds of residents and business owners came to City Hall to say the reason they bought and invested in that neighborhood was because of the promise of the streetcar. I don't know if that would have happened, at least on this magnitude,” he said.

He also said that the streetcar has helped turned around a 60-year trend of a decreasing population of Cincinnati. He credits the investment of public transportation amenities as a reason for that reversal. In his opinion, Northern Kentucky is ripe for the same kind of development scene in Downtown Cincinnati and OTR.

Qualls recommended to any political or business leader interested in publicly endorsing a Northern Kentucky streetcar to identify the allies involved with such a project and develop a strong message to the affected community by clearly outlying the benefits of a streetcar.

“I think you're lucky that you have Cincinnati to point to all of the successes of Downtown and Over-the-Rhine,” she said.

John Schneider was instrumental toward making the streetcar a reality, including being involved in the 2002 Metro Moves light rail proposal that was shot down by Cincinnati and Hamilton County voters by a 2-to-1 margin. He said that having the public vote down public-transit projects are not unusual and that multiple attempts at the ballot box are often necessary to break ground on major endeavors such as this. He said that he felt that the Metro Moves initiative was rushed and poorly planned and cited other reasons like the low cost of gas at the time, the riots that Cincinnati had experienced a year before, the high cost of the Paul Brown Stadium deal with the city, and the fact the country had just embarked on a war.

Budd outlined the primary goals of the committee that included finding federal funding for a study and identifying an economic justification to bring the streetcar rails across the Ohio River. Budd and Newport City Commissioner Beth Fennell will travel to Washington, D.C. in February and will meet with representatives from the Department of Transportation where they hope to secure money for a study.

A consultant in D.C. has already been engaged.

Budd said that extensions are always shorter than a completely new system, and Schneider said that the timing depends on whether local elected officials are behind the project. Schneider said that based on his research, extensions usually take up to three to four years.

An audience member asked the panel about the unique challenge of having multiple jurisdictions that make up Northern Kentucky agree in unison to move forward with such an ambitious endeavor.

“I think you cooperate and play better among yourselves than over on the Cincinnati side,” Schneider said.

He said that in 2001, an inter-local agreement was formed with the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky and the Southern Ohio Rail and Transit Authority to authorize a light rail spur to CVG Airport which was proposed in the Metro Moves campaign. "I think some aspects of that may be in place,” Schneider said.

For further updates, those interested in learning more are encouraged to visit the NKY Streetcar Committee's Facebook page.

Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor