Sunday, November 10th, 2013
I was surprised to see that last Wednesday’s post on Cincinnati’s culture of self-sabotage received such a huge response. In light of that, I want to circle back and more fully address the idea of cancelling projects.
What I do not want you to take away from that is that once started, projects should never be stopped on account of the money spent. That’s called the sunk cost fallacy. Money that’s been spent has been spent. One needs to look forward to the future expected benefits and costs. There are certainly many cases in which pulling the plug can be a good idea. For example, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels reversed the privatization of certain social services functions after he determined it was unlikely the contract would ever work out like originally envisioned. This an example of someone taking a risk, trying to make it work, then acknowledging it didn’t rather than continuing to double down on a mistake.
On the other hand, I do not see the majority of these rail cancellations as having anything to do with benefit/cost analysis. You may notice, it’s only transit projects that ever seem to get the ax. Since the era of the freeway revolts, it’s tough to name any governor or mayor that has ever sent back earmarks on a highway project, or ever cancelled any road project they could actually get money to build on the grounds that it’s a boondoggle. (My hypothesis continues to be that there’s no highway boondoggle big enough that even the most fiscally conservative governor is willing to kill it). Clearly, the cancellations in these cases is based on an ideological animus to transit specifically.
That is, unless it is baser motivations at play. Chris Christie’s cancellation of the ARC tunnel project enabled him to use the funds New Jersey had pledged to the project to bailout the state’s bankrupt highway fund. He’s not demonstrated any hesitancy to push even questionable and expensive transit projects when they involve Somebody Else’s Money. For example, he wants the Port Authority to spend a billion dollars on an extension of PATH service to Newark Airport, which many consider an inappropriate use of funds. Christie’s motivation appears to be bribing United Airlines to add flights to Atlantic City, whose gambling market is imploding. (Read up on the Revel Casino deal if you want to know more about this sordid story).
Meanwhile, many of these cancellations are proving to be costly in their own right. I noted before how Cincinnati had already let $95 million in contracts out the total $133 million cost of the streetcar, how it will have to repay federal grants that were going to pay for a big slug of the project, and likely end up with at best a minor financial win and potentially a loss.
It’s the same in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker trumpeted that he was returning an $810 million stimulus grant for rail upgrades between Madison and Milwaukee. Apparently although the federal government was going to pay 100% of the construction costs through the stimulus bill, he didn’t want the state to have to pick up the estimated $7.5 million in annual operating costs. (How much the state actually would have had to pay incrementally is a an open point. The existing Hiawatha operating costs were being 90% paid for by federal funds. It’s by no means clear that the state would have been on the hook for the full amount anyway). The feds were actually generous enough to reimburse Wisconsin for money it had spent on the rail line it decided not to build. However, that did not prove to be the end of the matter. Train maker Talgo is planning to sue the state of Wisconsin for $66 million for breach of contract. Given that it actually built trainsets for the state, this seems like a strong case. Also, if the state does lose, it might also be forced to immediately repay an additional $70 million in loans. The state could have paid operating costs for a long time for that kind of money – and it would actually having something to show for it other than a hole in its bank account.
So from a financial perspective, it’s not even clear cancelling these projects was a good move – even if you look solely at costs and ignore benefits.
But beyond the financials, these types of things also show communities that have deep internal divides, and which as a result require businesses and residents to apply an additional uncertainty premium into investment business cases there to account for the likelihood that a) promised actions by the government may not actually occur, even if they are in flight and b) that the community may not be able to muster the staying power to make the kind of long term investments that are necessary for any community to retain marketplace relevance. Though hardly immune to infrastructure drama, New York City just put water tunnel #3 into service for Manhattan. This is a project that was started in the 1970s. That’s the type of long term thinking that has kept a place like New York on top. In short, credibility counts for something, and places like Cincinnati and Wisconsin have damaged theirs.
I want to contrast this with one of the legendary stories of Indianapolis. In the late 1980s it embarked on construction of a downtown mall. Maybe that wasn’t the best idea in the world. The city definitely didn’t have its act fully together. Two entire city blocks had been excavated and were literally holes in the ground. No anchor stores had been signed and it wasn’t clear if the project would or even could be finished. A lot of the public suggested scrapping the project. Some suggested turning the empty blocks into ice rinks. Others trying to bring in a Wal-Mart. Instead, city leaders across the board came together to commit to the project, including many of the downtown corporations investing in the project. It got built. While generally successful, the mall has certainly had its share of troubles over the years and may not even survive over the long term given the disfavor of the mall format. However, one thing that project demonstrated is that Indianapolis finishes what it starts. In short, they have credibility and an ability to execute that’s simply better than most places. I suspect that’s one of the reasons metro Indy has so outperformed Cincinnati in population, job, and reputational growth, despite having far, far fewer natural assets to start with. They aren’t constantly shooting themselves in the foot.
This is also why even though there are road projects out there I did not think were a wise use of funds – say I-69 in Indiana, to pick one I’ve criticized – once they are being built I’m all in favor of getting them done as quickly and cheaply as possible. And then letting the communities in question live with the consequences of making that choice, for good or ill. Again, that doesn’t mean no project should ever be cancelled, but you need to pick your battles. Communities are not well served when project debates turn into endless years of scorched earth politics, litigation, etc. in which neither side will ever given an inch on anything.
Thursday, November 7th, 2013
Perhaps the most interesting urbanist election Tuesday was in Cincinnati, where the main issue in the campaign seems to have been the under-construction streetcar project. John Cranley, a Democrat who vowed to halt construction, as well as to cancel a pending parking privatization contract, was elected by a significant margin over Roxanne Qualls. Given that an anti-streetcar city council was elected as well, it seems likely Cincinnati will halt the project.
Let me stipulate that I was never really that big a fan of the streetcar. Not evil, but certainly not at the top of what I’d see as the priority list for Cincinnati. And I’m a resolute opponent of parking meter privatizations as most of you know. Yet I can’t help but see this as a perfect example of why Cincinnati, a city that has more assets than any comparable sized place in America, has long been a national laggard.
The New Republican Strategy: Cancelling In-Flight Projects
But before that, I’d like to highlight this as part of a national trend. As with Chris Christie and the ARC tunnel project in New York, Cranley (a Democrat backed by the Tea Party) has vowed to stop the streetcar project, even though $22 million has already been spent on it and another $71.4 million has already been obligated through contracts and is underway. (To put it in perspective, this is $95 million out of the total $133 million cost, a total that while, not cheap, certainly is nowhere near say stadium or major highway projects). Streetcar supporters say that it will cost more to stop the project than finish it. The project manager disputes that but admits the cancellation cost is unknown. I suspect the cancellation costs will be pretty steep, and local government will take a bath on it since there are a huge amount of federal grants on the project that can’t be used and would even have to be paid back. This will no doubt also tarnish Cincinnati’s reputation with the US DOT, and I wouldn’t expect any discretionary grants to be becoming their way anytime soon.
Christie and Cranley aren’t the only ones. Several Republican governors also turned back grants and cancelled projects approved by their predecessors. It’s worth mentioning that none of these guys ever turns back a highway grant, no matter how big the boondoggle. This belies the notion that Republican these politicians are actually fiscal conservatives.
This seems to be the new normal, and it’s going to increasingly make doing anything difficult. A city or state can spend untold years on a project and actually spend a boatload of money, only to have one election result in everything being thrown into the trash, even if construction is half over. (In fairness, the Democrats have uncorked what I believe to be an even more toxic dynamic, namely refusing to enforce laws their politicians don’t like. I already see state level Republicans nibbling at this in response, and I think it is going to get very, very ugly).
Why Cincinnati Has Struggled
This also illustrates perfectly why Cincinnati has struggled for so long. It’s a city with deep and toxic public divides, maybe the worst I’ve ever seen in America. Until this is overcome, which seems unlikely, don’t expect Cincinnati to be reaching its potential anytime soon.
As for Cranley, he says “we want to move the city forward.” However, his entire campaign was premised on stopping the city from moving forward in a direction he didn’t like. He may have said some things I’ve missed, but in the coverage I’ve seen of this, he hasn’t put forth any alternative vision, merely typical election-cycle bromides about balancing budgets and more cops and firefighters. It’s difficult for me to believe that a guy who ran for office to stop stuff will suddenly morph into a someone with a positive agenda, but we shall see.
In that Enquirer article, a commenter named Mark Miller (which a commenter suggests may be a pseudonymous account named after a local Tea Party leader) said, “Today is a very sad day for Cincinnati. Not only are we going back four years, we are setting this city back 50 years or more. One only has to look at the Cincinnati subway to see what small thinking brings to this city. Once we were Chicago. Post subway we could only hope to be Indy or Toledo.” That’s revealing of the extraordinary regard in which it holds itself. It’s also not strictly true. But it does get at something, namely that Cincinnati has squandered advantages most places would kill to have while other cities that started without much have actually gone on to build things.
It just goes to show that the real measure of a city isn’t in the stuff it has, but in the culture of its people. I know many incredible people in Cincinnati, but the cold reality is that the culture of the city is one of smug self-regard and self-sabotage. Until that changes, don’t expect Cincinnati to achieve the greatness of which it is manifestly so capable.
Tuesday, October 15th, 2013
It’s not easy being an urbanist blogger in America. For the most part you don’t make any money, but you do accumulate lots of people who don’t like you. Randy Simes, publisher of Urban Cincy, has been a thorn in the side of the local Tea Party for some time. Having suffered a string of defeats trying to derail projects they don’t like, notably the streetcar, both in city elections and in multiple referendums, the Tea Party in the form of Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) apparently decided that if the couldn’t get what they wanted through democracy, they’d try silencing their critics by filing a vote fraud complaint against streetcar supporter Simes. Fortunately, a bi-partisan majority of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, rejected the allegations.
Simes is a Cincinnati native and graduate of the University of Cincinnati planning school. Like a surprising number of city bloggers in the urbanist space, he actually spent much of his time living outside of Cincinnati for career reasons, first in Atlanta and then in Chicago. His current employer recently sent him on a two-year overseas assignment in Seoul (color me jealous!) Having no historical connection to Chicago nor owning real estate there, he made arrangements to re-establish a residence in Cincinnati by basing himself in a friend’s apartment, and making a deal with his employer to return to their Cincinnati office after his expatriate assignment finished. As part of relocating back to Cincinnati in advance of his assignment, he attempted to get an Ohio driver’s license (which didn’t happen because of problems with vision screening not being available) and registered to vote in Cincinnati. I suspect that if I left the country, I’d do something similar, probably establishing a legal residence with my parents or something since why would I spend two years paying for an apartment I’ll never use in a place where I have no historic connection?
After voting the mayoral primary, the Tea Party pounced. A group called the Ohio Voter Integrity Project filed vote fraud allegations. They describe themselves as non-partisan. However, this group has been linked to the Tea Party backed True the Vote organization by the New Yorker. The attorney representing them in the case, Curt Hartman, is an attorney for COAST. (Simes is far from the only person getting this treatment as Mary Siegel, the member of the Ohio Voter Integrity Project behind the Simes challenges, has also challenged 600 other people’s right to vote as well).
Now Simes has never hidden the fact that he was living in Chicago, so perhaps the Tea Partiers were right in raising a question initially. But upon discovering the facts, they continued to press forward with the case. They scoured Simes’ Facebook and Twitter posts to try to prove he was actually living in Chicago. They tried to subpoena all of his employment records and emails with Travis Estell, the person in whose apartment he is presently based. They asked the Election Board to refer the matter to the county prosecutor, vote fraud being a felony.
Given the politically driven IRS harassment of Tea Party groups by the Obama administration, you’d think they of all people would not agitate for heavy handed government intimidation of others. If so, you thought wrong.
This type of intimidation tactic via vote fraud allegations is hardly limited to victims on urbanist left. This case is eerily similar to a tragic situation in Indiana where Republican Secretary of State Charlie White was convicted of vote fraud and mortgage fraud in a politically motivated prosecution by a Democratic prosecutor appointed after complaints were filed by the Democratic party. White was in the middle of a divorce and having to move as a result, and was staying temporarily with his ex-wife, which is where he registered to vote. Democrats argued that this wasn’t his actual residence – their arguments seemed to suggest there was no place whatsoever where he could have legally voted – and got an aggressive partisan prosecutor to pursue the case.
This seems to be the next frontier in the degradation of American politics. Since as they say any prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, and since the average American reportedly commits an average of three felonies a day thanks to the mind-numbing quantity of laws we keep churning out, it’s pretty straightforward to use these types of legal tactics to destroy the lives of your political opponents. Since unless there’s a particularly unscrupulous partisan prosecutor who violates the gentleman’s agreement that protects insiders of both parties (as in the case of White), it’s almost certainly going to be the little people and outsiders who are disproportionately the victims. This ironically includes the Tea Party. (For example, long time Indiana Senator Richard Lugar voted for many years from the address of a house he sold decades ago, but you won’t ever see him prosecuted. I’m not saying he should have been, only illustrating that prosecutions are highly selective and targeted).
I have been very fortunate in that while I’ve levied some pretty tough criticisms of various things here over the years, I’ve never experienced any form of retaliation or intimidation in return. Honestly, to my own surprise at times it’s been almost the opposite. Yet this case gives me pause to rethink things as well. Given that even small technical errors in voting cases are felonies, the increasing use of vote fraud allegations as a political weapon by both political wings, and the extreme unlikelihood that my vote will actually matter in an election, I say better safe than sorry. There’s a good chance I simply will allow my registration to lapse and never vote again. I’ll certainly never vote anywhere near anytime I don’t have an ironclad permanent address established for an extended period.
Back to Cincinnati, after a hearing in which election board member Caleb Faux said, “I find this whole proceeding to be extraordinary,” a bi-partisan majority of 3-1 ruled in favor of Simes. The one person who voted against Simes seemed to imply that it was only a matter of timing – registering too early – rather than that his residency was invalid.
Despite this vindication, the Tea Party remains unapologetic and is even attempting to raise the stakes. On Twitter they are now basically saying that if Simes really is a resident, then he’s committed tax fraud:
— COAST (@GOCOAST) October 14, 2013
Bona fide vote and tax fraud are legitimate issues. But let’s not delude ourselves that this has anything to do with justice. It has everything to do with intimidation. In fact, I doubt COAST actually thinks these allegations will stick. I think the real target is getting Simes in hot water with his employer. He works for an engineering firm that has done streetcar-related work, so they are basically saying that Simes advocacy for the streetcar is being done corruptly on behalf of his employer. They claim that the public has been “manipulated by a multi-national corporation” for “years”.
These self-styled geniuses of social media who can purport to track Simes movements such that they know he doesn’t really live in Cincinnati apparently haven’t mastered the art of LinkedIn. Randy Simes hasn’t even worked for his current employer for “years”, having only joined them in 2012 and prior to that actually working for a competitor for nearly five years. His streetcar advocacy far predates the start of his employment. Here’s but one small example from 2010. Who’s being dishonest now, COAST?
In any case, trying to drag his employer through the mud can’t help Simes’ career prospects there, so this tactic is sadly likely to work. Given that the vast majority of the urbanist press has to rely to other employment to pay the bills, trying to create negative publicity (even if the employer is not directly implicated) that imperils one’s career is clearly an effective tactic, and one that could easily be used against urbanist bloggers almost anywhere.
As a Chicagoan once noted, “politics ain’t beanbag.” Like it or not the urbanist press is involved in politics, so I’d advise people to be buckled up as there very well could be choppy waters ahead.
Thursday, September 5th, 2013
I’ve previously posted some fantasy transit maps for various cities. This older post included a Columbus one by Michael Tyznik. He’s back with a fantasy transit map of Cincinnati. Only this case, the fantasy is the actual completed 2031 train system that would have been funded by a reject ballot referendum in 2002.
Now I’m not sure a massive regional rail system would really be a wise use of funds for Cincinnati. Nor do I believe the full system could have been built without follow-on tax increases as costs are always underestimated. Nevertheless, this represents a major road not traveled for Cincinnati, as it were. Instead, there’s billions of dollars in highway improvements slated. Time will tell how this and other choices the community has made will pan out.
Thursday, August 29th, 2013
A couple weeks ago I posted a series of photos demonstrating the damage freeway construction did to Indianapolis. Since I’ve been covering Cincinnati this week, I thought I’d show the damage freeways did there too.
Over the Rhine is one of America’s most stunning historic districts. When I visited the city last year, one of the locals explained that there had been “miles” of neighborhoods just like it obliterated by freeway construction. I found this difficult to credit until I came across the photographic proof.
Here’s a picture of one such area, the West End. This photo dates to the late 1950′s:
West End Cincinnati in the late 1950s. Image via Cininnati Transit
Here’s a Google satellite view of the area today. Pretty much everything but Cincinnati Union Terminal appears to have been demolished and replaced with I-75 and an industrial park.
Lest you think Union Terminal survived unscathed, it appears in the 1950s photo that it had a sort of City Beautiful style formal plaza in front of it. Here’s a closer look:
Cincinnati Union Terminal, image via Flickr/whitehall buick
And here’s the Google satellite from today that shows it converted into – what else! – a parking lot:
Almost empty, of course.
Tuesday, August 27th, 2013
Cincinnati, like most older cities, has experienced a long period of population and economic decline, especially relative to its overall region (i.e., sprawl). Looking at recent trends in the city, I’ve been prompted to ask whether or not it has hit an inflection point where decline has been halted and a new growth cycle of sorts is underway.
Cincinnati was once something like the 5th largest city in the US and was the dominant city of the interior West during the first half of the 19th century, much like Chicago today. A failure to embrace railroads and structural factors it never could have overcome (just to cite one example, an inability to quarry Wisconsin ice fields during the winter) led to the center of gravity shifting to the Windy City. Cincinnati entered a long period of relative and decline and stagnation, though regional economic employment and population grew on an absolute basis. As with many places, a basically land-locked core city saw population peak 1950, followed by decline. A particular recent low point in the city was the 2001 race riots in Over the Rhine, which may be the most recent major racial disturbance in a major American city.
Whether triggered by this or some other factor, Cincinnati in (mostly) the post-2000 embarked on a number of changes that did quite a transforming work in downtown. This included lowering a highway that cut downtown off from the riverfront, building two new stadiums, major redevelopment in Over the Rhine, etc. Notable here was completion the first phases of the Banks, a mixed use riverfront development that had been a poster-child for many of a city that could never get anything done. Similarly, a street car system seems on track thanks to Herculean efforts in the face of stunning obstacles. There has been new major office construction and also (more dubiously) a casino. Outside of downtown Cincinnati is replete with many high quality neighborhood business districts that have seen significant improvements. The University of Cincinnati embarked on a major starchitect oriented building spree, etc, etc.
Other cities can tell similar tales, but what made me specifically consider Cincinnati was a couple factors. First is just the huge difference in feel and palpable physical change between visits I made in 2008 and in 2010. I was not the only one who noticed as even firebrand conservative talk radio host (and pretty rabid anti-city guy) Bill Cunningham changed his tune on Over the Rhine, singing its praises.
Also, there’s been a political shift as well. Previously many Cincinnati initiatives had been derailed by a very active Tea Party style group called COAST – “Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes” (which actually predated the Tea Party) They were a pretty fearsome force to be reckoned with for a period of time. However, after failing to defeat the proposed streetcar in a referendum, their power appears to have wanted considerably in the city. The locus of opposition to city initiatives now comes from the statehouse, and also from collar county politicians like Rep. Steve Chabot, who was gerrymandered into a district where he represents downtown Cincinnati while being supported by a Warren County voter base. This isn’t to say that COAST is always wrong. Cincinnati and Hamilton County have cut some astoundingly bad deals that have inflicted taxpayer torment (such as the aforementioned stadiums). But their loss of influence is suggestive of demographic change in the city. Had more urban-oriented residents been attracted to the city?
To test this, I took a look at some base data. Here’s a look at total population in the region since 1950:
Here’s a look at percentage change by Census year. The change is over the preceding decade. So 1990 represents the change between 1980 and 1990:
Lastly, here’s a look at population share within the region:
As of 2010, none of these show a material change in the sprawl paradigm. I was hoping to see especially that Cincinnati had reversed its share loss within Hamilton County and/or that its percentage loss had decreased, but this was not the case. The 1980-1990 decade was actually the best for the city, and the population percentage losses have increased in the two decades since. Similarly, share loss even within Hamilton County has continued to grow.
However, I find the numbers interesting. Suburban Hamilton County was the growth juggernaut in the 50s and 60s, but it basically flatlined in 1970. I know geography complicates things in the area, but from my drives about town, there appears to be land left that could be developed but hasn’t been. Suburban Hamilton County itself actually lost population during the 2000s. This is in line with general inner suburban declines around America. I suspect this has had an impact in bridging the city-suburb divide within Hamilton County because now almost the entire county can related to being the “inner city” if you will. Many of these areas are in pretty much the same boat as the city, and thus could find alignment of interests.
Also, the loss of population in the city suggests a possible alternative narrative for why the Tea Party lost influence. Namely that its political supporters in some Cincinnati neighborhoods gave up and left, leaving a pro-downtown type majority coalition. Whatever the case, it provides an opportunity to achieve civic momentum because there’s more policy consensus, though state level Republicans can continue making things difficult. (Again, this says nothing of the merits of various policies themselves, merely consensus for action). The core population growth was real in the past decade, but concentrated in downtown and though the percentages were pretty high (around 30%) it was on a pretty small base so the total gains were only about 1,350 people. Good, but not good enough. Here’s the NYT Census map:
Looking at jobs, the core zip code of downtown, 45202, lost 19,500 private sector jobs between 2000 and 2011, a drop of 23%. (Zip code 45219, which includes the University of Cincinnati, had a slight job gain, but on a comparatively smaller base of only 14,400). This suggests that there hasn’t been an economic inflection point either.
To date the data would not appear to have confirmed the notion of a center city inflection point in Cincinnati. However, the change in the feel of the city is, as I said, palpable. Last time I was there I just generally got the feeling that the wind was back in the city’s sails. Time will tell if this is the start of a real trend or whether it is just a bump created by unsustainable public investment and a change in national trends. Given the high quality “bones” of the city, Cincinnati is one of the place I’d be watching to see if post-industrial cities can really pull off a turnaround.
If you’re interested in the raw data and charts I created for this post, here’s the Excel file.
Friday, July 26th, 2013
Republican governors like to strut around like they are the adults in the room, making the painful cuts and decisions needed to balance budgets and propel economies. This lets them portray their policies as somehow rooted in some different and better philosophy of government than their Democratic opponents. But peek under the covers, and you’ll see that all too often these Republicans are just as much big spenders as their Democratic brethren. The only difference is the list of boondoggles they want to waste money on.
Exhibit A is Ohio Governor John Kasich. One of his first acts in office was to strip Cincinnati of $52 million in federal fund allocations for the downtown streetcar project. Not content with a mere administrative decision to defund, a Republican legislator actually introduced a budget amendment to legally prohibit any state allocations for the streetcar. The state’s transport policy committed had previously ranked the streetcar the top project in the state. After Kasich took over, he cancelled it completely from the state’s perspective.
Was this because he wanted to run a tighter fiscal ship? Or put money toward higher cost/benefit projects? No. Look at how he’s actually governed and it’s clear he wanted to cancel projects like the streetcar so he could spend it on his own personal boondoggles.
Kasich’s biggest investment is a $440 million bypass around Portsmouth, a town of 20,000 people. That’s almost $22,000 for every man, woman, and child in town. (Even expand the look to the entire county and there are only 80,000 people). Ask the people of Portsmouth whether they would rather have this road or a check for $22,000 each, and I know where my money is. To put in perspective how crazy this is, remember those $300 stimulus “rebates” from a while back? Even at today’s ridiculously low interest rates, 30 year treasuries are yielding about 3.5%. Invest the $22K per person in treasuries and you could pay them a $750 “stimulus” every year in perpetuity.
Kasich is hardly alone in this category. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ most expensive project was a highway in another state that costs over $100,000 per foot and includes a tunnel that passes only under trees local residents didn’t want to cut down. Daniels also enjoys a high reputation in Republican circles for fiscal rectitude. Though not a governor, it was Republican Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens who championed the original “Bridge to Nowhere”, a $400 million span to an island of 50 people. Kentucky Rep. Hal Stevens, dubbed the “Prince of Pork” by the Lexington Herald-Leader, has single handed kept plans for an I-66 interstate through rural Kentucky that nobody else seems to want alive.
Back to the case at hand, Kasich just goes to show yet again there’s no highway boondoggle big enough that even the most ostensibly fiscally conservative governor is willing to cancel it.
It may well be that this is part of a longer, more strategic route. But with the vast transportation needs in Ohio, it’s tough to imagine this one small town project deserves the most money. And while I’m not the biggest fan of urban streetcars myself (not evil, but not my top priority by any means), at least downtown Cincinnati legitimately has millions of people visiting it every years.
It’s hard to take Kasich seriously as a conservative if this is the type of project he wants to champion. Unlike some urbanists, I like roads. I’m not ashamed to say that we need to build more of them, even some expensive ones. But we ought to at least build ones that make sense, in places where people actually live in numbers commensurate with the money spent, and where there’s a real cost/benefit to be had.
In the meantime, by no means does someone like Kasich deserve to be put in the conservative bucket. Just because someone wants to waste money on a boondoggle you actually like doesn’t make him any less a boongdoggler.
Wednesday, November 14th, 2012
Your time lapse of the week features Cincinnati this time. This one is called Cincinnati 2012. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
And since we’re on the subject of Cincinnati time lapses, here’s another. This one is called Paths and Nodes. If this one doesn’t display, you can click here.
Friday, July 6th, 2012
In a post on Cincinnati called “A Midwest Conundrum” I noted the apparent disconnect between a place that has probably the best collection of assets of any city/region its size in America, and the long term stagnation the region has experienced.
What’s caused that? The reasons are complex, but something that I’ve long noticed is that Cincinnati is one of the most socially fragmented cities I’ve seen, and among other things has one of the worst city-suburb divides in America. I’ve rarely seen a place where suburbanites so openly brag about how they never come into the city like they do in Cincinnati.
We see this “Cincinnati vs. Cincinnati” dynamic playing out in the debate over a new $95 million streetcar system downtown. Transit proposals always sharply divide people along philosophical fault lines and are very controversial. And honestly, I’m not 100% sold on the Cincinnati streetcar itself. Nevertheless, the city government decided to move forward with it using a mixture of local, state, and federal money. The state approved its share under the previous administration. The feds had likewise approved a large grant.
Opponents of the streetcar have done everything possible to derail it. A local organization called COAST – Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes – took the lead. They brought a long string of successes in using ballot initiatives to defeat various things they didn’t like. They tried twice with the streetcar. The first time was a charter amendment that would prohibit the city from spending any money on streetcars. After that overly broad amendment failed, a second initiative narrowly focused on the streetcar also failed.
The benefit of this for streetcar supporters is that the project had now passed the test of clear democratic legitimacy. Put directly to the voters of the city of Cincinnati – twice – they endorsed it both times.
Democracy, however, is apparently not good enough for some people, particularly of the Tea Party Republican variety. In a curious move, US Rep. Steve Chabot inserted language into the House version of the transportation re-authorization bill that would prohibit any federal funds from being spent on any fixed guideway system. His target was the streetcar. This was not something done in the dead of night, but rather something he openly bragged about on his web site:
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) authored an amendment to prohibit any federal transportation dollars from being used for the Cincinnati streetcar project….The amendment itself is only 25 words and would stop in its tracks the federal grant money sought by the city of Cincinnati for the streetcar project. The primary funding for this project came in the form of an Urban Circulator Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for $25 million. Then, earlier this year, city of Cincinnati officials were on Capitol Hill seeking even more federal assistance.
As we’ll see in a moment, Steve Chabot is actually the representative for downtown Cincinnati. This is a curious reversal. Where in the past Congressmen would do everything possible to secure earmarks to bring home the bacon for their district, Chabot has decided instead to produce an “anti-earmark,” preventing the federal government from spending money in his district. What a novel concept.
Chabot claims his move is about priorities, saying that highway projects like the Brent Spence Bridge are more important. It’s interesting that even noted transit skeptic Wendell Cox has suggested that Cincinnati is over-freewayed, reporting that “Few American urban areas have better transport infrastructure and fewer still have as much potential for expansion. And few urban areas of 1.5 million have so many miles of 8-lane freeway. Except for part of the Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway and portions of the I-275 ring, virtually all freeway that is not eight lanes is six lanes.” Regardless, Chabot clearly knows that cancelling the streetcar won’t have any impact on any highway project in the region.
Chabot has hardly been the only political enemy of the streetcar who is nominally supposed to be representing the interests of Cincinnati. Republican Gov. John Kasich, after taking office last year, rewrote the state’s transport funding list and deleted all the funding the state was going to commit to the streetcar. Not satisfied with that, Kasich then had a provision inserted into the state budget by State Rep. Shannon Faulkner Jones (from far north suburban Cincinnati) that would prohibit the state from even administering federal grants on behalf of the Cincinnati streetcar system. (I’m not certain if this provision was adopted in the final budget).
Here we have three conservative Republican officials, the governor, a suburban state legislator, and the actual US representative for downtown Cincinnati, all attempting to kill this one streetcar project, one that passed two local votes and that is not even expensive compared to most other rail transit projects around the nation on a total price tag basis.
I hope this explodes the notion that the Republican party has any true interest in decentralizing government power. They love to rant and rave about Washington and states rights, but as I’ve noted before, when they run state governments, they gleefully set about micro-managing local governments. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that dis-empowering local governments, particularly big city governments they see as likely to be forever Democrat controlled, is a core political objective of the Republican Party. The fact that they are happy to run roughshod over the voters of Cincinnati to do so shows how little these Republicans at least respect local democracy. (Not that the Democrats are any better. They’ll happily cheer any one of their policies getting mandated by the Supreme Court if they can get it. But the Republicans like to pretend that they care about democracy and liberty more. In reality, both parties have agendas that they view as self-evidently correct and which should be imposed regardless of what the people think).
In any event, this sort of in-fighting is a classic example of why it is so difficult to do almost anything in Cincinnati and why it struggles so badly demographically and economically. The culture is broken. I was in downtown Cincinnati recently and it is really doing great, but with things like this it’s hard to get too excited about the city and region’s prospects. It’s not that I suggest a streetcar is critical to the future – as I said, I’m not even sure it’s a slam dunk project myself – but that the streetcar shows what you have to do through to get almost anything done there.
I’d like to end this with a map that shows part of what is going re:Chabot. It’s map of his newly gerrymandered district:
As you can see, his district takes in downtown and the west side of the city, then snakes around to include heavily Republican Warren County. I haven’t studied congressional maps that closely, but from what I’ve seen, generally cities tend to get to put into one district. This both helps create minority districts, but also keeps the city together as a community of interest. Especially in a place like Cincinnati, the people downtown and those in Warren County, while they should view themselves as sharing a region in common, often express outright hostility to each other. They certainly have very different outlooks and concerns. If the map was drawn to favor affluent suburban Republicans, then its effect is really to try to neutralize the voters of much of the city of Cincinnati. Maybe good electoral politics for Washington purposes, but bad policy in terms of making local regions thrive.
Contrast Cincinnati with the 7th Congressional district in Indianapolis.
That district outlines the city-county boundary except on the north, because the city is too big to fit into one district. Note that the affluent northern tier of the city is included with a Warren County analog to the north where it has a lot of commonalities.
In any event, when your own US and state representatives are trying to actively undermine the policy of the city government – regardless of policy or party – that’s a recipe for regional trouble. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Alas, that seems to describe Cincinnati all too well.
Tuesday, June 19th, 2012
On Cleveland–out of its vast variety of worlds (i)–sometimes I feel like I’m straddling two of them, with two different sets of assumptions.
I think they’ll be familiar to some folks across the Midwest:
World 1—Younger Clevelanders who grew up here, particularly on the west and south sides. Some description: late 20s to 30s. Many Catholic—be it through Polish, Irish, Slovakian, Italian, or whatever descent. Despite the rumors of a mass exodus most of them haven’t left. But those that grew up in the city have largely moved to the suburbs. Those that grew up in inner-ring suburbs have mostly moved farther out. A few buck the trend and move closer to the core—in Tremont, Downtown, but they’re anomalies. Some have stayed put. As for attitude, work—the indigenous are closer to the Baby Boomers than they are their actual age. They are in many ways an extension of a legacy city threaded forward into the present, complete with naysaying about how Cleveland has fallen (though they only knew it on its knees)—complete with manufacturing and union ties, cop and fireman ties. They haunt West Park bars and Lakewood bars and in general: old man bars, but not for irony, but a buzz. Many smoke still. Think the term “urban ag” is some derogatory remark. They talk about high school (which one? what year?) They have kids and drive tons and see bikes as things they have to put under the tree around the holidays. But they are solid, and are attached to Cleveland like a mole is attached to the body. They are loyal that way. Perhaps too loyal.
World 2—Clevelanders who grew up elsewhere, be it out of Ohio, in Ohio, but not considered from here (granted being considered “from here” is–by the indigenous–a pretty small radius). Some description: no coalescing ethnic or religious descent—a mix of everything, nothing. They live in the core, be it city neighborhoods, Downtown, or inner ring suburbs. Cleveland is more about today to them, with the legacy ties tethered mainly to their chagrin that there’s a legacy still weighing the city down. But they appreciate the city’s past, especially it’s built past. They form Facebook groups about a lot, like micro-lending and historical preservation and bike advocacy and outings. There’s a lot of biking overall—doing it, talking about it. And the newcomers have an entrepreneurial spirit, with start-ups and worker co-ops defining the day as opposed to structured times and static work stations. Urban planning to them doesn’t arouse shrugs—like with their indigenous counterparts—but is rather part of the day, like finding food. This is partly why they are attracted to Cleveland I am told, for it’s a real city with a real history, but with an opportunity to do real shit. But it’s more than that, less a cosmopolitan thing than a rust thing. For the Rust Belt means something: not just the consequence of aged metal, but an essence of tangibility and ruggedness in an age of sprawl, sanitization, and display.
Like I said, I’m sometimes in the context of both: Mid-30′s, am from here, am Catholic, go to old man bars, have a kid, went to St. Ed’s High School, but also: I live in the urban core, blog, studied urban planning, am a Rust Belt romantic, and know urban ag isn’t a put down. But these two worlds hardly meet, despite the age similarity. At least that is my experience.
ok, we have skirted around this issue long enough so let’s just put it out there. we, and by “we” i mean “i,” think it is weird that people from cincinnati always want to know where you went to high school…i moved here from new york where nobody went to high school there and even if they did, you wouldn’t have heard of it.
i don’t blame cincinnatians, this is what they are used to. but on a general level, i really think it reflects the insular nature of the city. no wonder so many people aren’t that welcoming to newcomers to the city… they don’t even realize there are any!
And then over in Pittsburgh, blogger Mike Madison, a newcomer to the city back in 1998, recently had this to say about that fine line between attachment to place and the city’s social capital stuck in motion:
This place is full of warm and friendly people. The core decency of Pittsburgh, its communal and communitarian spirit, its family-friendliness, its respect for history and tradition…come through pretty quickly in social settings across a broad range of Pittsburgh…
[Yet] All of that neighborliness, all of that friendliness, all of that know-your-community spirit is descended from generations of Pittsburghers living in an essentially static place…
What’s missing in that lightning-quick account of Pittsburgh demographics is a story of thousands and thousands of people moving to Pittsburgh over the course of the 20th century, bringing the topsy-turviness of modern urbanity to Western PA…Today, you get that small town neighborliness, and you also get that small town insularity, nosiness, and exclusion…
Madison could have been talking about Cleveland, Buffalo, etc., and as indigenous to Cleveland, his post gave me pause. Because though I am indigenous, my interests give me the benefit of experiencing the world of the newcomer that is frankly not understood–and sometimes derided–by many I know. Yet we are called legacy cities for a reason. And for long we have been molded in a way of doing and being that eventually tilted our attachment to Rust Belt tradition into the stasis that enabled our oxidation in the first place.
And while I began this piece simply describing the gaps between two sets of groups, I finish it a bit more declarative than I intended: by saying that the world of the indigenous Clevelander has been less a world than it has been a fish tank—and we have been suffocating in our exclusion of fresh air and ideas for too long.
(i) Yes, this is a small representative of the world, and all the worlds of Cleveland, but it is used as a fine-grain example of a macro-level issue in a lot of Midwest cities dealing with the inability to take in new ideas. Be it the aversion to risk-taking, or the reluctance to accept others unlike what you came from, sometimes section of Cleveland retain an insularity that are not good for the city, and that serve to push newcomers and/or outsiders out. Not good for a place needing an influx of youth, diversity, and new ideas.
This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on March 8, 2012.