2009: Riding the Rails

The Story: “Train Wreck,” issue of Jan. 7, 2009

Progressives have been trying for decades to improve Cincinnati public transportation. When the new wave of light rail lines sprang up in Portland, Denver, St. Louis, Salt Lake City and Dallas in the ’90s, local transit wonks proposed a comprehensive regional plan to improve the bus system and build a light rail network. Called MetroMoves, it needed Hamilton County voters to approve a sales tax hike in 2002 but got crushed 68-32 percent, partially thanks to lingering bitterness over the stadium sales tax fiasco (see “1996” on page 8).

When Portland and Seattle built modern streetcar lines in the 2000s, many U.S. cities, including Cincinnati, jumped on the idea of simultaneously adding a circulator transportation option and boosting downtown redevelopment. Conservative politicians, weirdly fearful of rail transit, pushed back everywhere, including here.

By 2009, Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Bortz, Mayor Mark Mallory and a council majority had an initial plan for a streetcar line to connect downtown and the UC/hospital area, the region’s two largest employment centers. Then the NAACP and anti-tax COAST groups launched a petition drive to put the plan to a public vote.

Reporter Kevin Osborne interviewed the opposition’s main figure, NAACP Chapter President Christopher Smitherman, who called the streetcar a “pet project that lacks broad support among the public. … The average citizen, when he or she looks at streetcars closely, will reject it.” The NAACP and COAST had formed a political coalition several years earlier to defeat two government plans by referendum: a new Hamilton County jail and automated “red light” traffic cameras in the city. Now they turned their ballot savviness to derailing the streetcar.

Streetcar supporters objected to the groups’ proposed charter amendment, which would prohibit the city from spending money on any future passenger rail transportation without first putting the decision to a vote. The wording, Bortz argued, would handcuff all future attempts to add light rail or bolster Amtrak’s presence here.

Excerpt:

“ ‘Referendums are as American as apple pie,’ Christopher Smitherman says. ‘Our organization believes a $200 million streetcar system is not a priority for our tax dollars when the city is facing budget problems and City Council continues to cut basic services to citizens.’ ”

Today:

Streetcar opponents collected enough signatures to get the issue on the November 2009 ballot, where it lost 56-44 percent. So planning began for a line to stretch from The Banks to UC and possibly all the way to the zoo, and the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the project millions of dollars in federal rail transit grants.

Not so fast. After John Kasich was elected governor in 2010, he made a priority of cutting federal funding for all rail proposals, including $52 million for Cincinnati’s streetcar even though it was the No. 1 rated proposal statewide for funding funneled through the Ohio Department of Transportation.

In response, City Council trimmed the streetcar plan to a smaller loop from The Banks to Findlay Market. Predictably, opponents complained that the new concept didn’t connect to UC and therefore was worthless.

COAST and the NAACP got together on a second ballot initiative in November 2011, this time limiting their language to just streetcars. It would have delayed the city’s authority to fund and build a streetcar line until 2021. Cincinnati voters rejected this one, too, by 52-48 percent. Then came the mayoral election in 2013, pitting pro-streetcar Roxanne Qualls against anti-streetcar John Cranley.

Tired of the noise and negativity, Mayor Mark Mallory and City Manager Milton Dohoney finally grew a pair (two pairs?) and started construction in summer 2013. By the time Cranley won the election and announced he was killing the project as promised, the money already spent or committed plus the penalties for cancelling contracts meant not doing the streetcar would cost about as much as finishing it. The Haile Foundation pledged $9 million in private funds to help with the operating budget, and Cranley’s anti-streetcar allies on the new City Council changed their minds and voted to continue.

And so the most scrutinized, voted on, smeared and fucked-with $130 million development project ever pushes forward to a 2016 opening. Smitherman’s prediction was wrong — average citizens embraced the streetcar and overcame obstacle after obstacle to keep it going.

Conservatives’ hypocrisy around the streetcar has been galling. How many votes have we taken on the multi-billion dollar Brent Spence Bridge replacement options? Did we miss that ballot referendum on the $500 million project to add one lane of I-75 each way through the city?

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