A friendly debate about public transportation might be useful; but when there's lots of money at stake, it's easier to use children and people with Down Syndrome as props to attract sympathy.
This half-baked debate is about Hamilton County Issue 7, a proposed half-cent sales tax increase for transit. If passed, the tax would raise about $60 million annually to pay for MetroMoves, a $2.74 billion, 30-year plan to expand the Queen City Metro bus system and build a new, five-line light rail network centered in Cincinnati.
Other counties, mostly in Northern Kentucky, would pay for lines reaching the airport and Northern Kentucky University.
With less than two months before the election, both light rail campaigns are underway. Let's Get Moving — the lobbying group for MetroMoves — kicked off its campaign Sept. 12 in a gravel lot on Dana Avenue near Xavier University, next to an abandoned railroad right of way. If the tax passes, the site would house a key light rail station to connect four lines.
Attending the campaign event were plenty of staffers from the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), Metro's parent organization. So was L. Ross Love, president of Blue Chip Communications; Cincinnati City Councilman Jim Tarbell; transit guru John Schneider, executive co-chair of Let's Get Moving; and Mia Peterson, self-advocacy coordinator for the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati. The Procter and Gamble Co. has also lined up in support of the plan.
Noticeably absent were higher-profile politicians, which means Let's Get Moving is either in trouble or is doing the right thing.
The light rail plan is about connecting people to jobs, especially people without cars, which could heal some of the city's racial and economic wounds, according to Sister Francis Maria Thrailkill, president of the College of Mount St. Joseph.
"With Issue 7, everybody wins," Thrailkill said, perhaps unaware that police relations — not Metro bus schedules — were at the heart of the April 2001 rebellion.
Schneider was obviously aware of the results of the last half-cent sales tax hike in Hamilton County — the one paying for new Reds and Bengals stadiums.
"Everybody wins with this plan ... no seat license required," Schneider said.
Light rail bad, low taxes good
The other side is also certain it's doing the right thing for taxpayers. Alternatives to Light Rail Transit (ALRT) is backed by many politicians, including former City Councilman Phil Heimlich, now the Republican candidate for the board of county commissioners; City Councilman Chris Monzel; County Commissioner John Dowlin; and state representatives Pat Clancy, Wayne Coates and Tom Brinkman Jr. U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot and County Auditor Dusty Rhodes are honorary ALRT co-chairs.
At a Sept. 16 press conference at the Hamilton County courthouse, ALRT staged cute kids holding signs saying, "Axe the tax." Some of the politicians held a banner simply referring to Issue 7 as a "bad plan."
Coincidentally, the Black United Front (BUF) and others were protesting on the courthouse steps against County Prosecutor Mike Allen. When ALRT Chair Stephan Louis began speaking, most of the local media migrated from the BUF protest north to the ALRT event But one of the protesters edged up to the ALRT crowd and held a boycott sign in view of the TV cameras.
Dowlin quickly summoned sheriff's deputies. They moved the protester closer to the sidewalk, because ALRT had a permit for the courthouse steps.
Undaunted, the protestor gathered others and began chanting, "Mike Allen must go!" They were loud enough to drown a lot of what Chabot, Dowlin and other ALRT members said.
Before the noise overtook them, ALRT members said they might support an expanded countywide bus system. But they say light rail is far too expensive to justify the riders a completed system would serve — 100,000 daily, by SORTA's estimates. Rhodes drew applause at the end by labeling MetroMoves a "boondoggle of colossal proportions."
Coates said the local economy is already hurting, without a sales tax increase.
"We can't afford to deepen the pain," he said.
A Let's Get Moving campaign coordinator was also present, handing out press releases titled, "Group Rallies to Roll Hamilton County Downhill." The statement noted that 45 percent of the new sales tax would be paid by non-residents, that MetroMoves includes buses and streetcars and that the project will generate $2.7 billion in economic development, according to a study paid for by SORTA.
The hole in the truth
Both sides of this debate have more truth-telling to do. ALRT needs to stop citing numbers out of context to paint light rail in the worst possible light. ALRT also needs to focus its skeptical eyes on the astronomical subsidies Americans put into roads and cars through gas taxes and car payments, instead of accepting them as God's plan for transportation.
Road and car spending is a self-reinforcing cycle. What are the odds voters would pass a half-cent tax increase to pay for the next batch of distant highway interchanges?
Let's Get Moving needs to explain why it's so focused on getting money for light rail instead of spending less money on an expanded bus network; bus expansion plan represents only about $112 million MetroMoves total cost. For $2.6 billion the Tristate could have the Ferrari of bus networks.
SORTA's nine-member board, appointed by Cincinnati and Hamilton County, also needs to submit a resume detailing its experience building billion-dollar transit projects on time and on budget.
Another key question is what SORTA will do with the $60 million in annual sales tax dollars if an anticipated 25 percent state match and 50 percent federal match for light rail don't come through? The silence on this is deafening.
The two basic questions in this debate are: Do Hamilton County residents mind paying another $50 a year each on sales taxes for a better bus system, downtown streetcars and light rail lines running a total of 60 miles in the county? Do county residents trust SORTA to build and manage such a huge project? ©