Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

Cincinnati: The Great Streetcar Debate

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.

More Cincinnati

A Midwest Conundrum
Agenda 360

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Cincinnati

46 Responses to “Cincinnati: The Great Streetcar Debate”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    It's not true that there's a coalition between blacks and Republicans. There's a coalition between the head of the local chapter of the NAACP, who's very unpopular with the grassroots, and the Republicans. As in LA, the people who complain about mass transit are not blacks themselves, but corrupt power brokers who style themselves black leaders, whose power is institutional rather than popular.

    Working class whites are a different matter. But often they support rail transit as a way of shortening their commutes, which can be long if they can't afford to live near where they work. (This is an increasing problem due to the fact that a) downtown areas are gentrifying and b) edge cities crop up in favored quarters).

  2. The Provost of Cincinnati, Editor-at-Large says:

    All of Hamilton County, not Cincinnati alone, had a failed light rail sales tax vote in 2002. It passed in the city limits but failed sharply in the county outside the city limits. In polling, the #1 reason cited for no votes was hangover from the Bengals/Reds stadium overruns and poor team performance. There was therefore the perception that local government couldn't deliver on promises, despite almost none of the same people being involved.

  3. Steven says:

    Early in the post (I'm not finished reading yet), you state there has already been a referendum on a tax increase for rail transit, but you don't mention that the streetcar plan involves no increased taxes. Perhaps that is mentioned later on, though.

    Hamilton county government signed the lop-sided lease with the Bengals, not the city.

  4. Lincoln says:

    The last two poster have made this distinction, but I'll reiterate- most of the poor economic decisions have been made by Hamilton County, not the government of the City of Cincinnati. Granted, Cincinnati is suffering from a budget deficit, but that is par for the course for any municipality in this recession.

    It may sound obnoxious, but making the distinction between the responsibilities of the County government and City government is important. The County has been ripping off the City (and other cities in the County) for some time. The classic example is law enforcement. While everyone in a municipality pays for county law enforcement, in general, that law enforcement service is used in the unincorporated parts of the County. It's a glaring and egregious example of the selfishness of the rich.

    Public transit aside, this issue shows how cities are the right vehicle for change and growth, because of their ability to tax payrolls and their greater opportunity to use these funds at their discretion. I think the streetcar project is a great idea, but even if you refuse to believe that, no one can honestly want an absurd, ineffective and outdated governing structure like the on found in most Ohio counties to govern their local affairs.

  5. Lincoln says:

    Also, while I understand the conceit behind "don't build this in the middle of a recession", the fact is that it is generally the best time to build something (not to mention that federal money for these projects are already allocated, so it's a zero-sum game. If Cincinnati isn't awarded a grant, some other town is. Now is the time to be fighting every day for our 'right to success'). The County has been saving money like crazy on materials involved in the recently restarted Banks project, and I suspect the privately financed and built Western-Southern Tower across the street is coming in under-budget as well. Why shouldn't the City take advantage of market opportunities just like a business?

  6. Travis Estell says:

    While the Enquirer is suggesting we delay the project until after the recession, the Cincinnati Business Courier is saying that "now is not the time to give up" on the project:

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Steven, I'm simply saying that if you want to do a major tax increase, I'm not opposed to a referendum. I'm not saying I endorse one here. In fact, I don't like the California style initiative that COAST wants to put on the ballot.

    Lincoln, I agree that if you've got the financial strength to invest in the recession, that's one way the top companies differentiate themselves. Does Cincinnati have the money? I think by all means the city should continue to pursue federal funds for the project. I think if you get a mix of private funds, federal grants, and TIF money, you probably can get it done.

    Travis, thanks for the think. Too bad the CBC puts themselves behind a paywall and thus cuts themselves off from debate.

  8. Ahow says:

    Wait. That Manhattan Airport site is a joke right? There are actually people out there thinking that it would be a good idea to turn the most serene portion of a crazy city into its loudest part?

    And since when was a park considered undeveloped? Its developed as a park. Duh.

  9. Radarman says:

    I agree about the uptown link, Urbanophile. The original streetcar proposal was just for the downtown-OTR circuit. The uptown link was the price of support from a critical councilmember. It's hard to think what the traffic between the med center and downtown will be, but advocates for the uptown link are fascinated by fact that the two are the areas are the largest concentrations of employment and they disregard the fact that they are parallel universes.
    The weirdness of the link between the president of the NAACP and the ultra-conservative COAST with its links to race-baiting local talk radio cannot be exaggerated.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    If tax increases require a referendum, then so should spending cuts and deficits. It's unfair if the government can lay off cops and teachers whenever it wants to but has to go through a referendum if it wants to raise money to retain them.

  11. Richard Layman says:

    I don't really know Cincinnati that well, and you're right about the fact that there isn't necessarily a reason for it to continue to exist given that water-based transportation is no longer pre-eminent, but I guess I disagree with part of your post.

    Cincinnati is well placed within the midwest and it is located on I-75 and other major highways.

    It is also the location of one of the most successful consumer products companies in the world (P&G). Plus there is a big urban university (U of Cincinnati.)

    So the question becomes how can Cincinnati (re)position itself within the midwestern landscape of center cities so that it can remain competitive in an increasingly competitive nation, especially as the midwest loses out to locations on the East and West Coast.

    Why shouldn't the city (Cincinnati vs. the county) rebuild fixed rail transit and reposition the core of the center city around a new paradigm … while at the same time being hyperfocused on the points you make about real and fundamental ROI from public spending/infrastructure investments?

    I think fixed rail systems are especially successful for repositioning endeavors. However, there needs to be a detailed plan of attack to realize the benefits.

    (E.g., in DC, without such a plan it has taken upwards of 30 years to begin truly reaping the benefits of the billions of dollars of investment in the subway system.)

  12. Quim says:

    Courier article here.

  13. Jon W says:

    Aaron, thanks for taking the time to do this write up. The streetcar debate down here in Cincinnati is a big one. I think one big problem with the pro-streetcar campaign has been a failure to educate the critics just what the streetcar is. The Mayor seems to be just now getting the word out, but a lot of the damage has been done. It is my understanding that many opponents think San Francisco style trolley cars when they think of the Cincinnati proposal (although come to think about it, that might work if they built a line up to the SanFranesque Mt. Adams neighborhood), as opposed to a modern streetcar transit system. Other naysayers often quote "who would drive down from the suburbs to ride it" as if it is an amusement park ride. Those accustomed to the auto-centric lifestyle are having a hard time conceptualizing this. So I think there seems to be an educational component missing here from the pro-streetcars crowd. The scars from Over-the-Rhines past and present- ie crime, race riots- have really been a loud argument from the opponents as well.

    Also, to mitigate the gentrification argument and get the local NAACP on board, I think the Mayor could link up with some of the local developers that have been working on many of the redevelopment projects in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and create a green jobs program for the neighborhood residents. I think it would be a perfect opportunity to empower the neighborhood residents to be apart of the redevelopment- getting job training and experience in weatherizing and rehabilitating housing- as opposed to being pushed aside and out of the neighborhood indefinetly through the gentrification process. Van Jones- President Obama's green jobs advisor- started a similar project in Oakland call the "Oakland Green Jobs Corps".

  14. Jason says:

    First, great post and thank you for taking the time to shed some light on this most important issue for our city.
    A couple of points to clarify. You mentioned you couldn't find any websites stating the funding plans for this project. The plan, as best I know, is to first and foremost get as much federal and state funding for the project as possible. They are looking for as much as $50 million from the Obama stimulus package. The other funding sources will be TIF, private donations, some city funds (from the sale of an airport among other things) and state transportation dollars. The Mayor and the City Manager have both made it very clear that without the federal dollars this project can not proceed.
    As you know, federal stimulus dollars are very competitive. Cities have to be ready to jump on them the second they become available and they have to show they are ready to immediately use them to stimulate the economy and create jobs now. Waiting for a city to hold a general election asking for permission from the public to spend money on rail is going to take us out of the race for those dollars completely. The federal govt. will not wait for us to get our act together.
    This is why defeating the NAACP/COAST Charter Amendment this fall is so important. Not only will it prevent us from being competitive for federal dollars for the streetcar, but also for the proposed 3-C Corridor Project (passenger rail between Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus) and the Eastern Corridor light rail project (proposed to bring light rail service from the east end of town to downtown).
    Also, because I don't think it was clear in your post above, this project does not plan on any sort of Tax Increases.
    Here's a link to a News appearance the Mayor recently made explaining a lot of these issues:

  15. Jason says:

    Here's a more direct link to the video I was referring to.

  16. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for all the additional comments.

    Richard, clearly Cincinnati is not going away. But it exists where it does for reasons that no longer exist. I agree that Cincinnati, with its dense built environment in the core city and unique geography, is well placed to take advantage of rail investments in the core.

  17. The Urbanophile says:

    Alon, back to your first comments and re-reading it. Who are you talking about in LA? The best example I can think of is the Bus Riders Union, and while I'm not totally up on their history, they seem to be the type of advocates against elite benefiting policies at the expense of the working class I am talking about.

  18. Randy Simes says:

    I don't understand the relevance of saying that the original reasons for why Cincinnati was settled where it is are no longer relevant. The same is true for virtually every city out there. Times change and the reasons for why cities are where they are change. Many European cities were built in locations for defensive purposes. Most older American cities were built around waterways. What's the point…there is none. It's all reflective of the times in which the cities were built.

  19. Randy Simes says:

    I would also like to say that when I searched for Cincinnati Streetcar Map I turned up two results on the first page, but I think you're right more needs to be done and as the campaign gets started here I would expect that and much, much more.

  20. The Urbanophile says:

    I don't understand the relevance of saying that the original reasons for why Cincinnati was settled where it is are no longer relevant. The same is true for virtually every city out there. Times change and the reasons for why cities are where they are change

    Randy, I agree completely. In fact, that's my point. You have to continue to change to stay relevant, which is why "oppose everything" groups like COAST keep cities from being successful. Change generally involves actually doing something.

    Can you send me a link to a good map? I'd love to add it. The only ones I found were flash or Google Maps, not anything like a jpeg or PDF I could easily embed.

    Whatever the case, COAST has clearly got a better marketing campaign going than the streetcar side. The pro-streetcar team needs to step it up.

  21. JG says:

    Spending money on a street car by itself does not guarantee economic development. Is there any larger vision, plan, and coalition of city and developers for areas adjacent to the rout? Unless there is a plan to boost population within distance of the car by 10 to 20,000 – the street car is a poor use of resources.

    Having said this I find the idea cool and am optimistic a larger coalition with private developers could transform large sections of the city. Not to mention assist the U of C in student, faculty, and graduate student attraction and retention.

  22. Pantograph Trolleypole says:

    I'd like to repeat something in the comments that should be repeated over again. The construction of this line will not increase taxes. That means this vote is the same as authorizing the allowance of building a line or a sewer, or a waste treatment plant, or a freeway. Usually votes are for raising money for transit lines, but never in this country has a city imposed on itself a need to vote before it built a rail line or any other infrastructure without raising taxes. The only other example of this in the United States is in Austin where the state imposed an electoral need to operate rail transit on cities of population less than 750,000 (meaning Austin) even if they already had the funding available without a tax increase. Other cities have been able to make decisions on how to invest without a vote if they aren't going to raise taxes. I don't see how this should be any different, unless as Urbanophile says you want to become California and vote on every gritty detail that you elected other people to decide on.

    There are actually two maps for Cinci in this powerpoint:

    Also, if anyone is interested, there are tons of streetcar powerpoints here:

  23. thundermutt says:

    JG, plans and visions sometimes get smoked by the marketplace.

    I think a form-based TOD overlay ordinance and a TIF/EID is all the "planning" that's needed to accompany a streetcar line.

    Well, that and a plan for operating in snow and ice. Cincinnati isn't San Diego.

  24. Living in Gin says:

    Toronto, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Boston seem to be able to run streetcars and trains in snow and ice just fine. In fact, those are usually the only modes of transportation that are running at all after a major storm.

  25. Anonymous says:

    "It's not true that there's a coalition between blacks and Republicans. There's a coalition between the head of the local chapter of the NAACP, who's very unpopular with the grassroots, and the Republicans."

    This statement is false. For example, many African-Americans are pro-life, against gay marriage and don't want to pay high taxes. Further, to say that the President of the Cincinnati NAACP is unpopular with the grassroots is to ignore fact. The President of the Cincinnati NAACP has led the effort to put 5 issues on the ballot for Cincinnati/Hamilton County citizens to vote on in the last 3 years. Petition drives that the NAACP Cincinnati Branch President has led have been successful at the grassroots level

  26. JG says:

    TM: "Sometimes" is sometimes a vague term to use when making a arguement. It also might or might not rain.

    I would be shocked if anyone disagrees that building the streetcar line without concurrent planning and discussion of adjacent areas is a good idea and necessary. If there is litte interest in the market currently to build upwards and increase population around the line – then it truely is a poor use of money.

    A TIF district would a good component of that planning.

  27. thundermutt says:

    JG, there's little interest currently in most real-estate related investment, so I don't think current interest is a good gauge of whether a public project is justified. IMO, public investments should look at a 25-50 year time horizon.

    There's even less interest in government master-planned developments. We all know how public housing and downtown pedestrian-mall redevelopment worked out pretty much everywhere they were tried.

    I do agree that there should be public discussions about the general look, feel, performance, and density of a streetcar district, but that's not really "planning". IMO, this should be done by developing a special TOD ordinance, the approval of which allows a say in setting the basic rules of the game instead of the specific things to be built in specific places.

    Sorry for the blog-quip response that was not well-explained.

  28. JG says:

    TM: I am not familiar with a TOD (transit oriented development?) but if it involves basics such as zoning requirements, density requirements – it sounds good. There would be no reason to put a KFC/TacoBell drive-through next to a stop on the street car line. I think we all would agree building vertical in such neighborhoods is fundamental for success of this project. I did have this in mind and used ambiguous terminology before. I rather like neighborhoods to grow organicly but with smart zoning to guide the process.

    As far as weather, how tough is repeated freezing and thawing on trolley tracks? I would think budgeting for snow removal specifically along the tracks would be sufficient to address all but maybe one snow per year. Cerainly if this was Bufallo things would be different.

  29. thundermutt says:

    I think we more agree than disagree, JG. "TOD" is planner-New Urbanist shorthand jargon for promoting density around transit lines through zoning.

    Philadelphia's climate and terrain is similar to Cincinnati's. When I looked at Philadelphia's transit website, there is a page specifically about winter weather. They point out that most of their lines have been designated by the city as critical routes for snow clearance. The bigger issue is ice storms, and ice formation on suspended electrical lines.

  30. Anonymous says:

    I do not agree with you when you suggest that people are looking down on riders when they say that those people will be more comfortable riding when they see tracks on the ground and there is a fixed route that they know the train is going.

    I went to UC for undergrad and have lived/worked downtown and in mt adams and oakley for several years, I used to live out in the eastern suburbs, and have lived in cincinnati almost my entire life. I also lived for a few years in chicago and visit it and other big cities regularly.

    I am very pro public transportation and have always been very comfortable getting on the Metra or El in chicago or subways in NYC. I am an urban -planner by trade…yet I have never ridden the Metro buses here. Why? It is a bus, not a train, so the uncertainty in my mind is much greater…where it is going, how often it will run, what type of traffic we may run into, etc, so I have always avoided it. There is something about rail that to me is intrinsically more stable and dependable as a mode of transportation than busses, and it has nothing to do with the intelligence of the potential rider.

  31. 5chw4r7z says:

    I just wanted to add that along the proposed streetcar line in OTR, development is going like gangbusters right now.
    3CDC was setup to coordinate a master plan for development and its gone on nonstop for over 2 years and hasn't slowed with the economy.
    All residential right now, but somewhere along the line, it will be irresistible for restaurants and retail. And I think that's where the streetcar will benefit development.

  32. John says:

    I have to disagree on the comment about the timing of the project. Now is a great time to undertake major infrastructure projects for two reasons:
    1. Construction bids are coming in low right now because contractors really need the work and are willing to do it for less.
    2. It will spur growth in the target areas (downtown, OTR, uptown) when the economy and housing market rebound.

  33. Alon Levy says:

    Aaron: the BRU in LA is headed by someone with a very shrill personality, much like the NAACP in Cincinnati. Their basic idea that rail only serves rich people is wrong – in fact, light rail serves South Central and a planned extension will serve East LA. They usually make the weaker claim that rail riders are overall whiter and wealthier than bus riders, but that's not because rail serves richer communities, but because it doesn't repel the middle class the way buses do.

  34. Arthur Camara says:

    I went to college in Atlanta in the 90s. There were several colleges located in the mostly poor, mostly Black West End neighborhood, located south and west of Atlanta's downtown. The MARTA rail system is what got students to downtown, to the museums, theaters, and performances of Atlanta's Midtown, and to the shopping malls, restaurants, and bars of Atlanta's well-off Buckhead neighborhood.

    The running joke used to be that the only time we saw white people on the MARTA trains was when there was an Atanta Braves baseball game at Fulton County Stadium.

    Casual users and people new to the city can easily become rail riders. A person needs a book bag and a surplus of time to read through all the bus route booklets it takes to become an established bus rider in most cities. There's truth in what Mayor Mallory says when he speaks of the wisdom of "follow the rail".

    As students at Morehouse College, Spelman College,Clark Atlanta Univesity, and Morris Brown College, we basically spent our freshman and sophomore years going only where the MARTA rails could take us. And we rarely caught the midnight movie in Buckhead's Lenox Mall, because the last train left Lenox Station at 1:00am.

    Phipps Plaza was a high-end shopping mall two city blocks from Lenox Mall, and even though Phipps also had its own theater, it was a well-kept secret to most of us in the West End, because the MARTA train stopped at Lenox Mall, not at Phipps.

    I don't know how all that plays out here in Cincinnati. I know that in many cities, rail systems help take working-class people and people of color to jobs that can be found downtown and in the suburbs. The office parks and retail chains in West Chester, Sharonville, Blue Ash, and Sycamore maybe become more accessible, not only to the students at UC, but also to the people living hard-scrabble in Over-The-Rhine, Bond Hill, St. Bernard, Walnut Hills, and Western Hills. If starting small with street cars makes that possible, then being anti-streetcar IS being anti-Cincinnati. To carry it a step further, the Cincinnati NAACP is being anti-opportuntiy, anti-equal access, and anti-working poor by siding with suburban business elites and xenophobes.

    But that's the recent history of the NAACP nation-wide.

  35. Anonymous says:

    Most blacks are socially liberal- look at the people they elect to office, especially Congress.

  36. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for all the additional comments.

    Alon, from what I have read, the BRU had some legitimate beefs with the rail system. Many bus lines were canceled, including express bus services that outperformed the all stop light rail, and additional routes converted into light rail feeder service.

  37. Jefferey says:

    The unstated issue here is not the up-front capital investment but the annual operating costs, which won't be covered by the proposed fares.

    No one has been able to say where the fare subsidy is going to come from, but if the intention is to keep the streetcar revenue-neutral the operating subsiidy will mean a cut "somewhere else".

    Interestingly, this has not been picked up as an issue by COAST/NAACP.

  38. JG says:

    ARTHUR: Interesting comments. Everytime a city raises fares on public transit, cuts routes, or downgrades service – the lower working class are disproportionately hurt (espcially African Americans in the midwest cities.) In theory it perpetuates all other ills that tend to befall anyone on hard times (joblessness, homelessness, debt, hunger, crime, abuse, drug use.) Anyone have data to back up such claims? Those studies should be done.

    Like a well functioning county hospital; having well funded, operated, and functioning public transit should not be optional.

  39. ThatDeborahGirl says:

    People loved the skywalks – they were torn down anyhow. People don't want streetcars – they'll probably be built anyhow.

    As white flight is increasingly prevalent in the City of Cincinnati – the working class folks of all races who are left look around and see that a streetcar system connected to UC, the Riverfront and and OTR nightlife they don't frequent wonder – HOW DOES THIS HELP ME?

    In a city where it's hard as hell to get reliable cab service and bootlegs can be found at any Kroger in the city – how does this help inner city families without cars get to better jobs in the suburbs? Or home with their groceries? Or to pick up kids from daycare or attend an evening school or church program?

    It doesn't. The streetcar doesn't address ANY real issues with transportation that people need solved. That's why so many folks, particularly black folks are against it. To the working poor the streetcar IS seen as amusement or novelty item because it has no earthly use for them. Worse, it's also seen as a way for white people to avoid them altogether on "their" streetcar while the backwards and lackluster Metro system will never be improved or updated for the working poor.

    These perceptions aren't going to go away – partly because they're true and partly because there is no way to make working poor folks see that they won't be stuck with the bill for something they won't use.

  40. David Ben says:

    ThatDeborahGirl raises some valid points, and I agree with her to a point. But first, to say that "people loved the skywaks" is a blanket statement that definitely does not apply to everybody. While I myself do not own a business on the street level that the skywalks drew customers away from, I'd bet most of them wouldn't see the skywalks as a particularly good thing. Furthermore, to say that they got torn down it only true to a point. If for some reason somebody wanted to isolate themselves from the real world of walking on a sidewalk and past legitimate shops, they could still use the remaining sections of the Skywalk. Not sure why they'd want to, though.

    That being said, you do raise some legitimate questions – namely: 1. "How does that help me" if I do frequent the places the streetcar goes? And 2. [paraphrasing] How does this solve out transportation problems? Both are very good questions. To answer, I'll address the second question first.

    Streetcars don't solve our transportation problems because they aren't meant to. While they are indeed a form of transportation, a streetcar system's role in a larger transportation context is not to serve as an answer for how to get from OTR to Mason, or Anderson to the Central Business District. In a transportation context, they instead serve as a way to circulate people WITHIN a given area, allowing better mobility in that specific area.

    But the streetcars are only partially about transportation. The more important role of a streetcar (and this starts to answer both of your questions) is that they both entice and catalyze development. To look at a streetcar from a merely transportation paradigm, they simply do not work – you are right. But because of their ability to encourage business development, the streetcars will benefit everybody who lives in the city of Cincinnati. As an example – have you ever heard of a business opening in a given location because there is a bus stop out front? It’s possible that it has happened, but not to my knowledge. Buses don't attract development because their routes aren't easy to understand, and the routes can be easily changed. The tracks in the ground that streetcars require represent a level of permanence that business like. As a result, businesses flock to where the streetcar will go. Enticing business downtown will increase the tax base. This happens in numerous ways: Customers pay taxes on the goods and services they buy. Employees pay taxes on their wages. Employers pay taxes on their earnings. All of these new taxes go into the city's general fund, which benefits all 52 neighborhoods, not just downtown. Furthermore, increased commerce and activity increases property value, which in turn allows the city more tax revenue which, again, could be used in any of our 52 neighborhoods.

    Do we need to revamp our public transportation system to ensure that it works in a wholistic way? Yes. Very much so. Are the streetcars the magic bullet to do that? No. But thay are one piece of a larger overhaul that needs to occur. And this particular piece does wonders in an economic context.

  41. JG says:

    DEBORAH: Your concerns are real. The street car will only be successful if it increases population density along the route. If that happens city revenues from taxes go up, and more money stays in the city as opposed to leaking out into the suburbs. It takes some planning and discussion ahead of time and down the road but is possible.

    You should argue for money generated from this to go into a broader public transit upgrade for the whole city.

  42. ThatDeborahGirl says:

    David Ben, I appreciate your response – but the fact is – time and again we've been told that the way to increase revenue for the city is to get people to spend money downtown.

    Do you know how many times fountain square has been renovated in my lifetime alone (I was born in 1971)? The government square renovation that left people more open to the elements than before. Do you remember when the downtown mall Tower Place was born? The Broadway Commons idea for a ballfield that fell through? Riverfront Development that Northern Kentucky beat us to the punch on?

    Cincinnati is capitalizing on the nostalgia of some bygone era of people going "uptown", "downtown" for shopping and entertainment. It ain't gonna happen folks.

    Parking sucks and gas prices are crazy. White folks are afraid of black folks. Black folks don't feel welcome in their own city. CPD is an embarrassment and harass people of ALL race, colors and creeds through profiling blacks and ticketing affluent whites because they feel can "afford it" which is not much better.

    Meanwhile people see money sunk into downtown that they would like to see put into their communities. Not just to fill a few potholes or pave a street that's needed it for the last 15 years. But for playgrounds and pools. And community development that makes SENSE! Stores in walking or bike riding distance. Bike paths and walking paths to make the closer shops available.

    And any transportation system should be designed so that getting from one neighborhood to another traveling east to west should be just as simple as the idiot system Metro insists on which is going all the way downtown first -or if you're lucky a midpoint in between- and then going to the other side of town from there. It's ridiculous!

    The streetcar will be a novelty for a while and then once the fad and newness wear off, the question will remain – what are we doing with this slow ass trolley and why couldn't we find a better use for this money.

    Health clinics, schools, hungry children, low-income housing – all these things are things the city needs badly and things that would benefit more than a few. Working on putting amusement/ recreation centers in neighborhoods that people could actually frequent – talk about a revenue builder.

    But the idea of "let's get 'em downtown and watch spend" is DEAD! Has been tried over and over again and has failed. Downtown should be revamped as a nightlife center for adults. The main centers for family recreation should be the neighborhoods.

    Once we get that underway, then and only then should we consider something like the streetcar. Anything else is putting the cart, quite literally, before the horse.

  43. David says:


    Insiteful comments. For me the most salient –

    "Cincinnati is capitalizing on the nostalgia of some bygone era of people going "uptown", "downtown" for shopping and entertainment. It ain't gonna happen folks." – if Pogues, Shillito's, Gidding Jenny etc were still there…then it would capitalize on that. They are not there. Macy's, Saks is not worth the journey.

    "the streetcar will be a novelty for a while and then once the fad and newness wear off, the question will remain – what are we doing with this slow ass trolley and why couldn't we find a better use for this money." – on a different scale, this reasonsates with OINKER and the HSR debate. Same pork, different slice.

  44. 5chw4r7z says:

    I got to hear a COAST representative talk last night. I think the more they talk the better it will be for the streetcar.
    The guy was very unprepared and uneducated on what the streetcar was all about. He was almost laughed out when he brought up the failed subway. The subway that was sunk because of WWI.
    yes the first one.

  45. Promotion Services says:

    “How can we afford to spend even more money we don't have?”
    Well, print it or have the local community bank create it electronically. If you don't have a community bank, then get one. It's perfectly feasible (but little known) to have a local bank create money, I say again, create money, for local projects without there being inflation as a result.


  46. Skip says:

    Cincinnati's warring factions need to collaborate on a win-win solution for its citizens.
    Rail needs to be proven, not political or emotional, as the best people mobility alternative, even for a pilot. The problem is people like the Mayor get fixated on the vehicle (rail) and not on the solution (better people mobility at reasonable cost). There is an innovative approach that could be that solution for Cincinnati or any other community. It is called Cellular Mass Transit (CMT). It evaluates where people are and where they want to go. It uses existing public transportation systems better. It marries best practices, integrating buses, taxi's, vans and rail systems to serve entire communities with short wait times and efficient, faster travel at lower cost, closer to the personal vehicle than any other solution. It's the brainchild of a regular citizen, not some consultant or politician.
    Learn more about it at
    Cincinnati, give this consideration for the good of your community.

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