The streetcar craze is sweeping America, and it has come to Cincinnati as well. The city is proposing to build a $185 million system linking the riverfront and downtown with Over the Rhine and the University of Cincinnati. Alas, I cannot seem to locate a good jpeg map of the proposed system, but there’s a Google maps version available at a booster site called Cincinnati Streetcars. The city of Cincinnati also has an official site for the project. The city is projecting an economic impact of $1.4 billion from this project.
Here’s a brief 1:40 video of Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory making the pitch for streetcars:
Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic about rail, however. A coalition led by the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP and an anti-tax group called COAST (Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes) is leading the charge on the opposition. Cincinnati has a self-amendable city charter with California style initiatives. This group is trying to bypass the city government with a plan to force a vote on an amendment to the city charter that would prohibit the city from implementing any type of rail transit solution.
Streetcar supporters have cried foul, among other things claiming that the amendment is deceptive, even illegally so, because it is being billed as an anti-streetcar amendment when it in fact bans all rail. Well, it is true it would ban all rail, but can you really blame its proponents for doing that? Any ambiguity would clearly be exploited to bring back streetcars under some other nominal guise. Regardless, this petition drive seems to have captured the momentum and has put the pro-streetcar side on the defensive.
The rhetoric has continued to ratchet up, and both sides are positioning this as some sort of existential, good vs. evil type decision. For example, in this brief 1:50 video of the launch event for the Cincinnatians for Progress Campaign, Mayor Mallory says: “Make no mistake, the nay-sayers, the people who say we shouldn’t do this [streetcars], are opposed to the city.” and “For generation after generation, there are two factions of folks in this city: the people who want to see us advance and those who want to see us stay stuck in the mud.” Watch for yourself:
Seems a bit hyperbolic to me. On the other side, the COAST blog has all the indignation and sarcasm we would come to expect from the various “anti” blogs out there. It’s almost a genre in its own right. Some of their quotes include:
- “Shooting the messenger is always a loser move. Now it’s apparently some sick sort of ‘progress.'”
- “They think you’re too stupid to known what’s best for your own city.”
- “So, COAST poses the question to Cincinnati: Which local politico most resembles Professor Harold Hill, seducing the City with imaginary solutions to perceived community problems, fleecing the populace in the process?”
Much of the COAST/NAACP rhetoric focuses around a “let the people vote” storyline. I actually don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing to hold referendums on projects that require a major tax increase. In fact, Cincinnati did previously vote on – and vote down – a sales tax levy to fund a light rail system. But one does not have to be anti-democratic to point out the flaws in a system of excessive citizen initiatives. California is Exhibit A here. And we have a representative democracy instead of Athenian style direct democracy for very good reasons.
I think both sides are talking past each other and missing important points, so I’d like to make a few observations on this.
1. The African American-tax protester alliance. A partnership between an African American organization and one that I presume is dominated by Republicans might seem odd, but it’s one I’ve seen recur. There’s a sort of natural kinship between African Americans, working class whites, and libertarian leaning Republicans when it comes to projects that are viewed as being left-leaning and oriented towards elites. For example, this is the coalition that successfully opposed city-county merger in Louisville, Kentucky twice. They even had an organization called CO$T (Citizens Opposed to Spending and Taxes).
It would be interesting to see if any Republican groups attempted to build something more than an ad-hoc marriage of convenience out of it. African Americans have long been among the most loyal Democrat voting blocks and maybe this sort of thing is a route back into that community for Republicans. Something to think about.
2. Blocking and tackling and race relations are key. This shows the importance of both maintaining a tight control on city finances and operations, and good race relations, both problems in Cincinnati. The city has budget deficit of $28 million that is expected to grow to $40 million next year. It also has well-known financial issues with a stadium tax, and it came to light that the city signed perhaps the most one-sided lease in the NFL with the Bengals. It obligates the city and county to theoretically unlimited commitments to supply the team with future amenities that become prevalent in the league. When you have a series of things like this, it leaves an opening a mile wide for opponents of new programs to drive a rhetorical truck through. “How can the city spend $200 million on street cars when it has a $40 million budget deficit?” There’s a response to this, but the circumstances themselves create a disadvantage. Had Cincinnati managed its budget in this downturn as well as say Cleveland has, it would be in a much stronger position to make the case for investment.
The problem of race relations in Cincinnati is well known and there is no quick or easy fix to it. Clearly, this isn’t a classic case since the mayor pushing the streetcar system is black. My understanding is that there may be some sort of personality conflict involved here. But I’ve cautioned rail advocates in many cities that they have to be super-careful not to target transit as being for well-off white people and/or as a gentrification generator. It’s very easy to get sideways here, particularly when you’ve got communities that are more transit dependent which have gotten very inferior service in many Midwestern cities for quite some time.
3. The pro-streetcar marketing campaign is very weak. There’s definitely a case to be made for streetcars in Cincinnati, but the pro-streetcar side is not making it very well. For example, I did any number of google searches like “Cincinnati streetcar map” to find a readily embeddable map for this post and couldn’t find one. I go to that Cincinnati Streetcar site and click the “What” link, and instead of an elevator pitch about what the project is and what they want to achieve, we are treated to a discussion of what streetcars are and are not generically as well as information about how to board that makes some dubious claims. Click their “News” link and it simply tells me to click another link to their blog. (This does have a map, incidentally, but the actual streetcar proposal is one of the least prominent things on it).
The city’s site isn’t much better. It’s full of gigantic PDF’s and what would appear to be outdated cost information. It also talks a lot about alternatives and not much about a preferred route, so I’m not even sure they have a specific route in mind yet.
Plus the arguments are very simplistic, reminiscent of those for the Manhattan Airport, and won’t convince anybody who isn’t already on board. For example, in the Cincinnatians for Progress video above, Mayor Mallory says, “When a city puts rails in the ground, economic growth follows.” That’s good for a pep rally, but you’ve got to be able to convince people who are skeptical but convincable. Don’t worry about COAST as you’ll never win them over. But you’ve got to make serious, reasoned compelling arguments, not just generic talking points. Here are some gems from the Cincinnati streetcar site:
- “Riding a streetcar is much easier than riding a bus. Because passengers can see the rails in the ground, they know where the streetcar is going.”
- “The streetcar is fixed to a route–there is steel in the ground. A developer knows the route will not change.”
- “Fixed tracks make the streetcar easier to use. The route isn’t going to change. Passengers can see where the tracks run so there aren’t any surprises.” (These people must have a rather low opinion of their potential ridership to keep bringing up things like this – particularly when they note that it is not for tourists or other people who might expected to only use the system once and thus have justifiable angst about it).
- “Streetcars promote growth add economic development in a myriad of different ways. The make downtown housing more affordable, bring in more customers to support downtown retail, improve property values, create a more vibrant city, and increase public safety by keeping more eyes on the street which improves the overall business climate.”
These are platitudes. Also, I’m very skeptical of the development metrics. There is already significant development occurring in OTR and downtown. How can you attribute incremental development accurately to streetcars? From what I’ve seen, when pushing for a major investment such as a stadium or a streetcar line, people tend to claim anything that happens after it opens is directly a result of that investment. That’s a dubious proposition. Plenty of places that don’t have streetcars – for example, Indianapolis and Columbus – have been seeing downtown investments in the multi-billion dollar range.
To win over the voters you have to do more than give the standard issue talking points applicable to any city and treat your opponents like obstructionists. You’ve got to give a compelling case for why streetcars are important in Cincinnati and what makes them a particularly good fit for here.
And the pro-streetcar side has handed PR victories to opponents by, for example, doing out of town site visits in a manner that let them be portrayed as simply junkets. The pro-streetcar side needs some new marketing and PR in the worst way.
4. Urban progressives need to learn to appreciate the legitimacy and importance of cost and tax efficiency. I believe we need to invest in our cities. It is going to take spending to renew our worn out infrastructure and build the 21st century amenities needed to be successful. But we’ve got to do that while keeping a close eye on the bottom line. Tax rates matter and places that have high taxation put themselves at a competitive disadvantage. I think this is missed by many urban progressives because they come from the political center and left while concern over taxes is generally associated with the free market right, which seldom ever even talks about inner cities. And also the ideas that fuel progressivism tend to originate in places where high taxes have less of an impact – New York, San Francisco, etc. Those are places where people will pay any price, bear any burden for the privilege of living there. And many of their residents are either well off or otherwise insulated from the negative consequences (for example, students).
But consider the working class for a moment. Think about the factory worker or the truck driver or the teacher or any of the 50% of the city who make the Cincinnati median family income of $37,543 or less. Think about trying to support a family of four on that. Even an extra $100 bucks a month out of their pocket hurts a lot. This is something a lot urban advocates don’t think much about, or certainly they don’t talk much about it if they do. Even fairly small differences in taxation can create incentives for people with modest incomes to leave.
So it is important when considering investments in urban infrastructure to be able to focus on those that are going to generate a positive ROI in terms of property tax base, jobs, increasing median incomes, population attraction, etc. We need to approach these projects not just as things we like and think would be good for the city, but with a hard nosed business case approach as well. I’m not saying you’ll always have rock solid pro formas. There are always assumptions and some element of “build it and they will come” even in purely private sector investments. But Midwest cities cannot afford to price themselves out of the market because they cannot yet command a substantial price premium. I think they need to make investments in differentiated environments (see below), but definitely with an eye towards cost.
5. Opponents lack a vision for civic success. As for COAST and company, I am very much struck by their lack of anything positive they want to accomplish. They appear to be a purely negative organization. They oppose things, namely spending and taxes. But they don’t seem to be in favor of anything. Mayor Mallory above said of people like this, “They don’t want to see any progress happen.” I said his rhetoric was hyperbolic, but in this case I can’t help but think it is the truth.
As I said above, I believe in fiscal discipline. But that is, by itself, a completely insufficient condition for urban success in the Midwest. COAST says of themselves, “Our Mission is to limit increases in taxes and spending to within the rate of inflation and to stop the abuse of power by government officials throughout Ohio.” Ok, who could be opposed to stopping abuse of power. But I find the first part interesting. You see, Ohio is already a high tax state. If you limit increases to the rate of inflation, you are still left with a high tax state.
Let’s say COAST accomplishes their goal of killing all these programs. What then? Is growth and prosperity magically going to wash over Cincinnati? Will there be a boom in downtown development if the streetcar is defeated?
The problem with advocates of fiscal restraint is that they have a tendency to become one trick ponies. They act as though all you need is low cost government to be successful. And in fact, all things being equal, that’s generally a boost to growth. The problem is, all things aren’t equal. Saying your strategy is low spending and taxes is like the CEO saying his business strategy is simply low costs. That doesn’t help you if you are a buggy whip manufacturer. And unfortunately, that’s where most Midwest cities find themselves.
Cincinnati is where it is and is what it is because of the river era, and to some extent the railroad and industrial era. If Cincinnati weren’t here today, would anyone think to create a major city there? Unlikely. It’s like most places in the Midwest. The raison d’etre they once had is gone and they need to reinvent themselves to be relevant in the future. Reinvention is about strategy, it’s about selecting customer segments, entering new markets, and leaving old ones. It’s a challenging, painful process. But businesses that stay successful over the long haul are constantly doing this to keep up with the times. IBM used to be in the punched card business. Intel’s core business used to be memory chips. Neither is the case today.
What COAST and others like them lack is any sort of vision about what Cincinnati actually needs to be in order to be successful. In the free market, companies fail. In fact, most of them ultimately do. So too it is with cities. Creative destruction is real. Cincinnati has no intrinsic right to success. It will only earn it by fighting every day to make itself relevant for the 21st century. A platform that only exists to oppose things is by definition inimical to that end since change is necessary for sustained success.
The Case for Streetcars in Cincinnati
First, let me say that I’m generally skeptical of light rail solutions in cities like Cincinnati, and streetcars are a variant of light rail. But while I haven’t studied the particulars of the Cincinnati case enough to make a formal endorsement, it strikes me that there are any number of arguments to make in favor of this proposal and it seems like a generally good one.
- It is, in effect, a rail transit pilot project for Cincinnati. Businesses like to do pilots and trials before they commit to a major investment in new product areas. Similarly, Cincinnati can start with this streetcar system and if fails, it’s not good, but it is certainly better than if they had built a multi-billion regional rail network. And if it succeeds, it has made the case for expansion of the system.
- The proposed route makes sense. By linking the University to OTR and downtown, you are linking three key origin and destination points. All of these are major strategic focus areas for the city, so investing in this routing is strategically aligned with other things the city is doing. OTR is a bit of a hike from downtown and this will give better access to residents there to downtown and the waterfront. Someone will correct me if I’m wrong, I’m sure, but I also don’t believe this is a rail line that merely replaces existing bus service.
- As I’ve noted, Cincinnati is in a challenging spot in that it is in a high tax state, and it has a central city that has structurally worse crime, schools, etc. than the suburbs. I’d suspect the taxes are even higher too. At a minimum, it will be impossible for Cincinnati to attract residents and businesses into the city merely by pitching itself as a low cost place to do business since it will never be low enough cost to offset its other structural disadvantages. It can never get away with being an NYC type of place, but it has to figure out a market it can serve and create an environment that is differentiated enough with appeal to that market such that it overcomes the other considerations. This is likely to involve targeted investment in urban infrastructure and amenities, and as these things go, the streetcar project is far less expensive than many. It’s only about a third the cost of the football stadium, for example.
- The streetcar project cost could be reduced further by lopping the Uptown connector to start. Also, the city is banking on some federal funding. That’s a good test. Can the city get those federal funds? If not, maybe the project is not such a good idea. But if the city is right, then maybe the actual local part of cost is even more modest. I don’t know how the city plans to fund this completely since conveniently none of the web sites I looked at had that information, but if it will throw off as much development as the city claims, TIF should be able to take care of much of the city’s share. My main concern would be the operating expenses, to make sure they are built in up front and that there’s a plan for capital maintenance.
- So many places want to implement rail to create density. The beauty of this line is that it serves areas that are already dense. Thus, a lot of the built environment in places like OTR is already in place and waiting. The ingredients are there and it is not going to take a wholesale makeover of an area to see the benefits. Heck, even Mr. Anti-Rail Wendell Cox said, “Cincinnati is a veritable treasure trove of middle and late 19th century architecture. Surely Cincinnati has more from this era than any city not on the eastern seaboard. This can perhaps best be seen just north of the downtown area (central business district), in the ‘Over-the-Rhine’ neighborhood.” You have here exactly the types of areas that might conceivably be supported well by a streetcar system.
One thing I’d add to the Cincinnati plan: make the whole thing fareless. And maybe adjust the timing. Conceivably the midst of the recession is not the time to be taking this on. Perhaps a better approach would be to look to defer any major expense on this a year or two to let the economy heal first, while continuing with the sales job, financing, planning and engineering, etc. The public might be in a better mood to invest then as well. The Cincinnati Enquirer has advocated this approach in an editorial against the streetcar plan. I’m not saying you have to do this, but clearly the current approach is generating blowback that could ultimately have negative consequences in the form of the charter amendment. Maybe some sort of cease fire would be in order.