Northern Kentucky trolley buses ready to roll

COVINGTON — Soon after crews finish painting the Roebling Suspension Bridge this fall, "trolleys" will start motoring a route from Covington through Downtown Cincinnati to Newport and back.

The vehicles will look like trolleys, and will have fun trolley bells. But they won't run on rails like the real trolleys Cincinnati hopes to have in service sometime in 2013. Instead, these trolley buses will roll down streets on ordinary rubber bus tires.

The Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky decided to switch its U-shaped Southbank Shuttle route to trolley buses for a more practical reason than their appearance. They were chosen because TANK needed a bus light enough that it wouldn't violate weight bans on the suspension bridge.

Because of that ban, Southbank Shuttles were detoured onto the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, adding somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes to routes, and making trips for most riders about twice as long.

By returning to the suspension bridge, TANK can cut route times about in half. They hope that again will help build the shuttle's ridership while saving fuel and driver costs.

As a side benefit, "It's a great prelude to what Cincinnati's doing," said TANK spokeswoman Gina Douthat.

Southbank Shuttle is named for Southbank Partners, the non-profit organization that works on economic development in the river cities of Covington, Newport, Bellevue, Dayton, Ludlow and Fort Thomas. Southbank leaders in 1996 and 1997 advocated for "circulator service" among the areas of Covington and the Northern Kentucky Convention Center; Downtown Cincinnati sports venues and other attractions; and Newport with its riverfront entertainment areas.

When Southbank officials first raised the idea, Douthat admitted, TANK officials considered it "crazy," and wondered who would use the service.

But after the shuttles started running in 1998 the route carried 200,000 passengers in its first year.

Fares gradually climbed from 25 cents to $1.50 for the shuttle. Major ride generators include Newport on the Levee, Reds and Bengals games, the convention center and Fountain Square, along with other parts of Cincinnati's business district.