Free shuttle likely coming to downtown Dayton — could streetcars follow?

The city of Dayton is expected to get a free downtown shuttle — a circulator — that travels between popular employment and recreation centers. Columbus’s free downtown circulator, CBUS, transports workers, residents and tourists between hot spots including the Columbus Convention Center, the arena district, the brewery district and the Italian and Victorian villages. CONTRIBUTED
The city of Dayton is expected to get a free downtown shuttle — a circulator — that travels between popular employment and recreation centers. Columbus’s free downtown circulator, CBUS, transports workers, residents and tourists between hot spots including the Columbus Convention Center, the arena district, the brewery district and the Italian and Victorian villages. CONTRIBUTED

Greater Downtown Dayton could get a free shuttle service — known as a circulator — as soon as early fall to better connect employers, amenities, shopping and dining areas and hot destinations.

The Greater Dayton RTA still needs to finalize the circulator’s route and find sponsors to help fund the new service, but downtown is bustling and has seen explosive growth, and the core is primed for a new transportation option that links popular employment and recreation centers, said Mark Donaghy, CEO of the regional transit agency.

“With everything happening downtown, I think the time is right,” Donaghy said.

RELATED: Free shuttle service proposed for downtown attractions

If the circulator is successful, that could galvanize supporters of bringing a streetcar system to Dayton, which has been discussed for years but has struggled to gain traction, according to Donaghy and others.

“We’ve studied it a couple of times, but we don’t have any immediate plans to move forward,” said Donaghy, about a streetcar project.

But, he added, “Right now, the next step is a circulator … but I think you are going to see a growing number of people who say (a streetcar) is the next logical step, as a ribbon to tie everything together.”

The idea to establish a circulator downtown came up in November 2014 during a presentation updating the Greater Downtown Dayton Plan.

Cities across the nation — including Columbus, Nashville, Tenn., and Baltimore, Md. — have circulator services that help tourists, workers and residents get around urban centers more easily and quickly without needing automobiles, officials said.

Greater Dayton RTA wants to use specially branded vehicles as circulators that are distinguishable from its standard buses and Project Mobility vans. Trolleys or special shuttle buses are under consideration.

However, if the service launches this year, the RTA temporarily will have to use some of its existing fleet, Donaghy said.

The shuttles hopefully will be free — or very low cost — and, unlike standard RTA buses, will operate in a compact area and will arrive at stops about every 10 minutes, he said. Most trips for riders are expected to be 5 minutes or less.

The circulators would serve the core of downtown and other nearby employment and activity centers, such as the University of Dayton campus and Miami Valley Hospital area, Donaghy said.

RELATED: Free shuttles could increase downtown activity

The circulator would operate at least six days a week and would run along a single line, with the possibility of future route expansions, Donaghy said.

The circulator, like any other service expansion, will be funded by RTA’s budget, but will need sponsors, officials said.

Donaghy said he feels optimistic that the circulator will get rolling this fall.

“We want to make sure the first shot we take at this is a good one,” Donaghy said. “We’re still hopeful we can wrap it up.”

Successful cities find ways to connect people to destinations, and a circulator would make it easier to get around and ease parking issues, said Tony Kroeger, city of Dayton planner.

The circulator, if successful, might drum up excitement and support for developing a streetcar system in Dayton, which has been talked about since at least the 1990s, officials said.

Streetcar projects are expensive. In the 2000s, at least one study estimated that bringing a streetcar to Dayton could cost $60 million or more.

But Dayton already has an electric trolley bus system, which means that much of the overhead wiring infrastructure needed for rail is already in place, Donaghy said. Installing overhead lines can cost millions of dollars, officials said.

One past proposal was for a 16-mile “aviation heritage” streetcar service that linked together popular destinations and scattered national park sites.

If the circulator is a hit, that would strengthen the argument for exploring a streetcar system, Donaghy said.

The economic strategy for downtown relies on connecting key sites, and the Link bike share program has helped do that and a circulator could also be beneficial in achieving this goal, said John Gower, urban design director for CityWide.

A streetcar could be one way to address transportation and connectivity needs, but that faces large financial and planning challenges, Gower said.

“This is just in the idea stages and no further than that,” he said. “At this moment in time, it’s probably a long shot.”

Kroeger, city planner, said, “The circulator is imminent. A streetcar is aspirational.”

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