I-Team: Despite criticism, data shows most crashes not caused by streetcars

Critics fear streetcar will cause more accidents

CINCINNATI -- Critics of the hotly debated Cincinnati streetcar say the project not only has a whopping price tag, but it could cost the city lives.

Streetcars in other cities like Houston, Texas and Portland, Ore. with similar designs to the system coming to Cincinnati have been involved in hundreds of accidents – some deadly.

Engineer Michael Patton, an outspoken critic of the Cincinnati streetcar project, said the city should expect the same.

“I do expect a lot of accidents,” Patton said. “It’s going to be a lot of little stuff. But it’s going to be a lot.”

Houston’s METRORail started in 2004. Since then, walkers, joggers, cyclists, cars and even buses have crashed into the streetcar system.

The METRORail was involved in 187 accidents in its first four years, including three fatal crashes. The worst year for METRORail was its first. In 2004, there were 62 accidents.

In most cases, the I-Team found the streetcar did not cause crashes. Often, people and vehicles would run or drive into the train. A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation said people who aren't riding the train cause about 96 percent of all rail-related deaths.

In Portland, streetcar-related deaths are even higher: 26 people have died since the TriMet MAX Light Rail's inception in 1986.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, more than 300 people have died in light rail accidents nationwide since 1995.

But Cincinnati streetcar project manager Chris Eilerman said he has a plan to keep people who share the road with the streetcar safe.

Eilerman said he has studied other light rail systems that run at street level and said one advantage of this structure is people know exactly where the streetcar can and can’t go.

“We’ll continue to do some public outreach to try and educate people in how to operate safely around a streetcar track,” Eilerman said. “It’s not like the streetcar has the opportunity to quickly change lanes or to do anything like that because it’s tied to those rails. As that happens, we think people will start to get a feel for it, become more comfortable with it.”

Construction on the streetcar began in August. Its first phase is a 3.6-mile looped route through downtown and Over-the-Rhine, with 18 stops. The project will cost between $133 million and $148 million to complete.

The system’s primary function is to spark redevelopment along its route, and earlier city studies indicated it would generate $2.70 for every $1 spent.

Opponents question the studies, and said operating expenses would be a burden on the city’s budget.

“It’s an amusement park ride for yuppies,” former state representative Tom Brinkman said.

Brinkman said he’s very worried about safety surrounding the streetcar.

“There’s… pedestrians all over the place,” Brinkman said. “And some are going to be hit. And some are going to die. And it’s unfortunate.”

Brinkman and other critics of the streetcar say the sheer number of accidents in other street-level light rail cities is staggering. It’s a number Brinkman said should raise red flags for anyone that could interact with the streetcar line.

“Most successful transit on a local level like this avoids traffic,” Brinkman said. “It’s either underground like New York and DC, or it’s above ground like in Chicago… and that’s the problem with this.”

The streetcar is expected to be completed in Sept. 2016.

Story web produced by Maxim Alter

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