Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cincinnati's Other Abandoned Subway

When it comes to abandoned icons of the Queen City, the abandoned two mile never completed subway is usually at the top of the list. On the other end of downtown though, there's another abandoned subway... sort of. The Riverfront Transit Center was built with a vision in mind and sees sparse use these days. In many ways though, it's just Cincinnati's other abandoned subway.

This past Monday, Seicer and I were downtown checking out the construction progress of the new Queen City Square tower...

...and the progress on The Banks:

Coming North off of Walnut St. we noticed the surface entrances to the Riverfront Transit Center. Some of the benches and metallic facade around the entrances have already begun to rust.

- Street level infrastructure of the Riverfront Transit Center showing signs of rust.

Most people don't even know where these stairs and elevators lead to.

- Surface level entrance to the underground Riverfront Transit Center.
- Surface level elevator entrance to the underground Riverfront Transit Center.

When viewed from street level, they've been known to fool out of town visitors or unknowing locals into thinking Cincinnati has some sort of subway transit system.

On the outside, their design is modern and appealing.

But on the inside, behind the locked doors, are stairs leading down into darkness.

Where do these stairs go? Well, to the Riverfront Transit Center... or as I affectionately call it: Cincinnati's other abandoned subway (To read about the original Cincinnati Subway which was constructed from 1920-1927 then abandoned, leaving a network of tunnels beneath the city streets, click here).

Unlike it's abandoned predecessor, the Transit Center is not a failed or abandoned project, just one waiting to be utilized. Also, unlike the original abandoned subway, the Riverfront Transit Center may soon have a more active, useful future.

What is the Riverfront Transit Center? The Transit Center is an underground tunnel running beneath 2nd street with two portals on each end. The tunnel runs parallel to Ft. Washington Way and opens up to Pete Rose Way near the US Bank Arena on it's East end and to Central Ave. near Paul Brown Stadium it's West end.

The idea for the Transit Center was born out of the reconstruction of Ft. Washington Way and the construction of the new stadiums. Unlike Riverfront Stadium before them, Great American Ballpark and Paul Brown Stadium do not feature expansive plazas at street level for buses and taxis to park. The Transit Center was built to accommodate these buses which now required a new place to park for events like Oktoberfest, Riverfest, Bengals and Reds games, etc. Designed with the future in mind, the roof of the tunnel is raised and features large, industrial vents to accommodate rail transit, should Cincinnati ever embrace a light rail plan.

- This image, published in a 1997 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer, shows concept art of the what the Transit Center could look like. Note: the streetcar station in the top right.

Aside from special events that bring large amount of buses and people downtown, the Transit Center remains closed, locked up tight in a somewhat abandoned state. I had only been down there on a few occasions before this day. Back in January of 08 I walked up and down 2nd St. checking the surface entrance doors to see if any were opened. I found one opened door and proceeded down the steps. I don't think that door was supposed to be unlocked, because once I got down there, there was hardly any light, no buses or vehicles and no people. I snapped one grainy photograph at 1600 ISO and left.

- January 2008 view of the Transit Center, most of the lights were off.

The next time I was able to get down there was during Oktoberfest Zinzinnati 2008. The doors were unlocked, the lights were on and there were a few buses parked down there. Seicer and I walked down to find the nice, modern light fixtures and hand crafted mosaics of the center's walls.

- Oct. 2008 view of the Transit Center during Oktoberfest.

As we stepped into the center of the tunnel to take a wide photograph, a voice came over the loudspeaker: "Excuse me, you must exit the Transit Center, the Transit Center is not open to the public." Confused, we looked for an employee, a person or someone who was down there before we heard the announcement again. We made our way towards the stairs, heading back up to the street level as the same voice once again came over the speaker to say "Thank You."

It's a shame the transit center isn't used more often as it looks very nice and could be a great example of modern transit architecture. As a bus terminal, it pretty much fails except in the case of special events. Local bus operators such as METRO, TANK and MegaBus prefer to use Government Square due to it's location in the central office district at the heart of downtown. If the Transit Center were to be utilized for light rail or as part of the upcoming 3C Corridor, it would give Cincinnati a rail transit station in a key location right under the riverfront.

- Look familiar? This underground transit tunnel in Seattle is currently undergoing renovations to accommodate light rail transit. (Photo courtesy of King County Engineers Office).

Despite the Transit Center now being locked up from the surface, Seicer and I were determined to see if any of the other entrances to the center were open.

- One of the street level information boxes for the Transit Center. Most of these are turned off, the few that are on instruct viewers to check METRO's website for bus schedules.

So we headed into the Central Riverfront Garage, beneath the Freedom Center.

- Closed doors to the Transit Center within the Riverfront Garage.

While there were clues indicating the Transit Center's existence, most of the signage throughout the garage only directed pedestrians where they could park, exit and where attractions such as the stadiums and freedom center were located. No signage indicated where the transit center could be located and even the elevator buttons leading to it had been disabled.

- Even the signage within the Riverfront Garage doesn't indicate the Transit Center exists and the buttons on the garage's elevator have been disabled.
- This Central Riverfront Parking Garage is similar to the one being constructed beneath The Banks development.

We exited the parking garage and got back into Seicer's car. Heading down 3rd St., we turned left on Central Ave. in an attempt to find one of the portals of the Transit Center.

Directly below 2nd. St., on each end of the tunnel are two parking lots, which block the tunnel's entrance and exit. This is not a problem for buses which exit and enter the transit center, considering there is no activity or buses utilizing the Transit Center. At the ends of the tunnel, at the back of the parking lots are large gates, barracading off the Transit Center.

Peering through the gates one can see the empty tunnel, which features few lights left on and rust beginning to form on some of the walls.

While I may jokingly refer to the Transit Center as "Cincinnati's Other Abandoned Subway," the Transit Center is not a failed project by any means, just an underutilized one. If adapted for light rail transit, the RTC could literally become an active subway station for the city, connecting to a regional light rail line. As the 3C corridor, a high speed amtrak rail line connecting Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, is planned; the Riverfront Transit Center has been considered to possibly be the location of a new Cincinnati station on the 3C route. As progress continues on The Banks project and the new Central Riverfront Park, one is left to wonder whether or not the Transit Center will ever be used to it's full potential. Until the surrounding development is complete or plans for light rail and the 3C Corridor are brought to fruition, the Transit Center remains quiet and closed beneath the city streets, just like it's abandoned predecessor, waiting for a chance to come to life.

- Weeds and grass growing up between Paul Brown Stadium and the Transit Center's western portal. Hopefully soon these open areas will be replaced by development.

Update :: 5/21/2009

Today the Cincinnati Reds hosted the defending world champion Philadelphia Phillies. Nearly 26,000 came out for today's day game, many in the crowd were young children visiting the ballpark with school or other groups. Due to the large amount of visiting groups, the underground Riverfront Transit Center was utilized to host all the buses:

Already showing some ware and tear, the Transit Center could use a little TLC. However, it was both interesting and exciting to see it operating in some capacity. Since it's only sometimes used for large events, it's a shame that this asset is not used to it's full potential.

To read more about and see photographs of Cincinnati's original Abandoned Subway system, click here.

To read about and see photographs of the construction of the Riverfront Transit Center, check out Jake Mecklenborg's Cincinnati Transit website.

  Updates | Sept. 29, 2017:
  • The Riverfront Transit Center still isn't used on a daily basis, but is utilized when accommodating larger events. Additionally, its entrance approaches are rented out as revenue generating, monthly parking spots.
  • In 2012, the RTC was used heavily for the World Choir Games, giving visitors and locals alike an idea of what an active RTC might look like. 
  • Metro's Rt. 90 Metro*Plus service uses the RTC as a layover point, but passengers are not permitted on board when the bus pulls through. 
  • In 2017, Mayoral Candidate Yvette Simpson indicated that she'd eventually like to use the RTC for all Metro bus service. She's challenging Mayor Cranley in Nov. 2017. 
  • Once a year, the RTC is used to host an concert, Ubahn Fest and several of the local races have their courses run through there. 
  • Interestingly enough, my current work sometimes brings me down into the RTC. I still find it to be an example of Cincinnati thinking ahead. Whether for bus or rail, I think it's a huge missed opportunity that we don't use it regularly. 

  Updates | April 7, 2020:
  • The Transit Center was used as a passenger terminal during the 2019 version of the Blink Festival. You can see some photographs in this post.
  • After a successful run during Blink, Cincinnati Metro began using the center for limited bus service (and as a parking lot) in February of 2020.


  1. Fantastic information and photographs. The transit center was a great example of thinking ahead because if we were to wait, and build this after the area was developed and light rail finally ready to roll, it would have been cost prohibitive to build an underground facility such as this.

  2. Cincinnati actually PLANNED for the future? I am shocked and dismayed. However the only fear I have is that someone from the NAACP may read your blog and float a referendum to have it filled in lest someone actually use it!

    The potential use of this is just astounding, Great reporting!!!!

    1. Really? NAACP? What would that organization have anything to do with how this is used or not used, hopefully you have your abbreviations mixed up or I would highly believe you are sprouting nonsense propaganda.

    2. Hi Anon,

      As this article was published in 2009—and I can't speak specifically for Paul's 10+ year old comment—but what he's probably referring to was that at the time, the NAACP's leader was vocally opposed to the construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar. The streetcar had been in planning stages since 2007 and was/is envisioned as the circulator and central component of a greater-transit system. This concept was explored in the 2002 Metro Moves plan. As the article discusses, the Riverfront Transit Center would be a large component of an expanded system (it's now partially used today even and connects above ground with a streetcar station).

      In 2009, there was an "Issue 9" on the ballot (and then an Issue 48 in 2011), both of which sought to stop the streetcar. Both issues were defeated at the polls. A vocal supporter of Issue 9 was then NAACP President Christopeher Smitherman, who today is a City Councilperson and former NAACP President.

  3. Thanks for clearing that up. I always wondered what those stairs let to!
    And I agree, this is suprising to see that Cincinnati actually did something with the future in mind. Perhaps progress in this city is possible after all!
    Let's just hope they build the streetcars that are the first step to getting people to believe in light rail.

  4. I took a shuttle bus down to Tall Stacks a couple of years ago, and it brought me here! It was completely bizarre and unexpected [also, awesome!].

  5. The first time I saw the rendering for this in the paper in 97, I wondered why in the hell they would dedicate so much space "underground" to buses, with one line of potential rail on the top, especially since Govt Sq is right up the road. Buses... boring.

    Now I can see how great this actually is, with the Banks actually on track, and the city virtually back "on track". As Randy inferred, I guess sometimes it is better to just build it instead of thinking about it for decades.