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Is Charlie Winburn right when he says it would be better to run a diesel bus instead?

Charlie Winburn is an important leader in our community, but he has been misinformed on the benefits of the bus trolleys outlined in a story that appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier. Your can read the Courier article here:

In a packet mailed in January to Cincinnati business leaders seeking contributions of $14 million, Mr. Winburn outlines the details of his plan for a rubber-tired trolley to serve Downtown, Over-the-Rhine and Uptown. Unfortunately, many of his assumptions are flawed.

First, ridership: Mr. Winburn projects that his trolleys will attract 5,000 riders per day. Yet Northern Kentucky's Southbank Shuttle, a similar rubber-tired trolley operating in the densest parts of downtown Kentucky and Ohio carries an average of 1,273 riders per day. Louisville's trolleys attract about 1,100 passengers per day. Unlike Mr. Winburn's "free" trolleys, both of those operators charge fares to use their systems, but still ...

For the past decade, bus ridership has been generally flat in almost all but America's smallest cities, while rail ridership is seeing robust growth. Some new light rail lines have achieved first-year ridership that wasn't expected for ten or fifteen years. Where it's available, consumers see rail as car-competitive. It's just the way it is.

Second, cost: Assuming the trolleys run fifteen hours per day, he apparently figures they can be operated for about $40 per hour. Yet the Louisville trolley system operates similar vehicles at a cost of $75 per hour for labor, maintenance and fuel. Each of TANK's Southbank Shuttle buses costs $70 per hour to operate.It costs TANK $6.05 per passenger trip to operate the Southbank Shuttle over its 5.9 mile route. Mr. Winburn claims he can transport passengers on a route connecting Downtown through Uptown, about six miles round-trip by the shortest route, for around $1.42 per passenger trip.

Third, environmental impact and sustainability: Mr. Winburn's plan promises "sustainable and green" technology. Regrettably, what he proposes is a fleet of diesel-powered trucks disguised as streetcars. As many know, diesel-powered engines are a main source of micro-particulates, the kind of pollution that gets deep into the lungs and causes all sorts of health problems. Cincinnati is already our nation's ninth-most polluted city in terms of micro-particulate pollution.You know what is really sustainable? Electric rail transit. No American electric rail system that has opened since the end of World War II has ever gone out of business. Fake trolleys come and go whenever some money appears or finally runs out. The best evidence: SORTA purchased the almost-new truck-trolleys pictured in the Courier article for a song when their operator went out of business a few years ago.

Finally, economic development: If buses promoted economic development, then we'd see cranes all over Cincinnati because we have lots of buses. Mr. Winburn likes the idea that a bus route can be easily changed or eliminated. But who would ever make a long-term investment in one of our close-in neighborhoods because of a "here today, gone tomorrow" policy of infrastructure development? Serious critics of rail transit no longer dispute that cities which have invested in modern rail systems are seeing tremendous economic development along the lines. Fixed routes with permanent tracks drive investment, create jobs, reduce pollution and assist in not only transporting a workforce but in retaining the young workers who are among our best assets for the future.Unfortunately, Mr. Winburn's trolley can deliver none of those benefits.A streetcar system is a substantial investment, but it will deliver even greater returns - an estimated $14 in new economic development for every dollar invested. It is one of the best hopes for revitalizing many of our neighborhoods. Long-term, the Cincinnati Streetcar will be the foundation for a revitalized city-wide transit network. Just a few decades ago, Cincinnati had 50% more people and thriving neighborhood business districts. That was when we had an efficient, customer-friendly and extensive system of electric streetcars operating throughout the city. We can be that city again.Cincinnati's competitor cities, almost fifty of them across the nation, are considering new electric streetcars.

The great cities of the 21st century - and we want my Queen City hometown to be one of those - will have modern, rail-based transit systems. Let's hope that Mr Winburn will join efforts to move toward that future, but the bottom line is simple: Trains will get us there. Trolleys won't.

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