Thursday, October 15th, 2009
I don’t have any personal connection to Cincinnati, so perhaps it’s not appropriate to take a position on a ballot initiative there. But I think the matter is relevant to a broader geography, and people can judge for themselves if they find my position compelling or not.
Issue 9 is the so called “streetcar initiative”. It is a proposed amendment to the city charter of Cincinnati that would require voter approval prior to spending any funds on any rail project of any type. It is being pushed by a coalition that is trying to stop a streetcar plan, though the initiative is more broad than just that. It would require a vote for any funding of any rail transit of any type. Also, it should be noted that Cincinnati previously did put a regional transit levy up for a vote to build a light rail system, and it was defeated.
The pro-Issue 9 camp is making the simple argument of “let the people vote”. It’s intuitively compelling. COAST, an anti-tax group that is one of the principal backers of the ballot initiative, has a pretty good track record of getting these sorts of things passed. So it does seem pretty clear that voters have been at odds with elected officials and leaders on many of these issues. And, I’ve said myself that the pro-streetcar marketing has not measured up to that on the anti-streetcar side.
Still, I don’t think this initiative is the right way to go. That’s for a few reasons:
- Direct democracy, though appealing in principle, has generally proven otherwise outside of relatively small, homogeneous communities. Athens was Exhibit A in this. Direct democracy was a disaster there, which is why our Founding Fathers chose a very different system. California is proving today that government by voter initiative is a recipe for ruin. Elected officials eventually find themselves so hamstrung by an accumulation of these initiatives that effective governance becomes impossible. The Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court recently criticized this very thing, saying that the ease of ballot initiatives in California has “rendered our state government dysfunctional”. While politicians are perhaps too easily co-opted by interest groups, the same has proven true of voter initiatives in California, which are often backed by huge special interest money. No doubt originally the initiative process was used for ostensibly good government purposes, but it has gone in directions its proponents could not have imagined. COAST may yet regret the Pandora’s Box it is opening with this.
- Constitutional documents such as city charters should deal with structural matters of government and general powers and duties, not micro-managing policy. Transportation is a clear and legitimate power of local government everywhere. Even COAST implicitly recognizes this. It certainly does not, for example, demand a voter referendum before any money is spent to fix potholes. It’s trying to use a bazooka to kill a gnat.
- The city of Cincinnati has to start building a differentiated product offering for its urban core in order to attract business and residents. I’m all in favor of low costs and low taxes, but that’s the only program COAST offers. In the case of the city of Cincinnati, with large legacy costs and other associated elements of being the core city, such as higher crime and worse schools than suburban jurisdictions, Cincinnati is structurally a high cost producer. It will never be able to compete in the market solely on costs. Costs are important, but they aren’t the only factor. Perhaps COAST has an alternative strategy to streetcars, but if so, I haven’t heard one. Organizations that exist simply to oppose things without any positive vision of what they want to achieve deserve a skeptical eye.
My view: Vote “No” on Issue 9.
I noted the pro-streetcar people had not gotten the job done on the marketing front. That is starting to change. I’ve seen some better materials of late. I’m not sure if the message is getting out, but the collateral is MUCH better. I’ll put a few videos below to give a sample. Some of these could prove very useful for other cities.
Here’s a brief 30 second spot with reasons to vote against Issue 9:
Here is just a really, really impressive video of various facts about the streetcar proposal. Any city looking to market transit should do something like this:
I’m not sure how effective this one will be, but it is kind of funny:
For those of you who would like to explore the streetcar matter in more detail, here are a couple of additional longer form videos. Note that I do not endorse the entire contents of these videos.