Anti-Streetcar Logic Should Stop Uptown Interchange Project

Support for the uptown interchange project reveals the hypocrisy of streetcar opponents.

Dec 18, 2013 at 11:57 am

Regardless of what happens with Cincinnati’s streetcar project on Dec. 19, it’s clear the $132.8 million project has been chilled by hypocrisy since its inception. When City Council’s budget committee unanimously approved funding for the $106 million uptown interchange project on Dec. 16, that hypocrisy was on full display.

As some council members conducted their due diligence on the uptown interchange’s costs, a few voices typically critical of the streetcar project pointed out that the interchange is an investment that will create thousands of jobs. Viewing it through the prism of costs, interchange proponents argued, misses the point.

The argument seemed particularly hypocritical coming from the mouths of Charlie Winburn and Christopher Smitherman, two council members who reject the exact same line of logic when it comes to the streetcar project.

Touting the study-backed 2.7-to-1 return on investment, streetcar supporters always point out that the project is about spurring economic development — some of which has already occurred.

Similarly, city leaders point to a study that found the uptown interchange would lead to 5,900 to 7,300 permanent jobs, $133 million of economic impact during construction and another $750 million once the interchange opens.

Yet Mayor John Cranley and some council members reject the findings of the economic study for the streetcar but embrace the numbers for the interchange.

Sure, they’ll point out that the streetcar study is from 2007 and the interchange study is from 2012 in an attempt to frame the former as outdated. But, as Cranley, Smitherman and Winburn love to point out, they opposed the current streetcar project from the start. Even when the streetcar study wasn’t supposedly outdated, it was still dismissed.

What makes the hypocrisy so outrageous is the exact same organization — the University of Cincinnati’s Economics Center — was involved in both studies. The Economics Center conducted the full study for the uptown interchange, while the group verified and added some points to the streetcar study from consulting firm HDR.

The hypocrisy doesn’t end there, however. When the city administration confirmed that the uptown interchange will force the city to keep property taxes higher than they would be otherwise, supporters of the interchange dismissed the concern. Smitherman claimed council members raising the issue were “grandstanding.”

Yet when the exact same issue is brought up with the streetcar, Smitherman and other streetcar opponents gladly blame the streetcar for leading to higher property taxes.

To be clear, City Council never raised property taxes specifically for the streetcar project. Council also doesn’t plan to raise property taxes for the uptown interchange. But for both projects, property taxes are being used to back capital funds — and that means property tax revenue is being gobbled up and won’t be available for future use, whether it’s for another project or a tax cut.

It’s the exact same scenario for both projects. Yet the mayor and some council members say the streetcar is leading to higher property taxes, while the uptown interchange gets a free pass. 

Then there’s the supposed issue of neighborhood favoritism. Just like the streetcar only directly benefits Over-the-Rhine and downtown, the interchange only benefits the University of Cincinnati and surrounding hospitals in uptown. 

A council meeting about the streetcar doesn’t conclude without someone claiming neighborhood favoritism, but not one council member raised the issue when it came to the interchange.

Proponents of both projects rightly point out that the effects will span across the city and region as new economic development takes hold. What remains perplexing is why some council members follow that argument for the uptown interchange but not the streetcar.

Now, it’s true more people use roads than will use the streetcar, and the city’s $20 million share for the uptown interchange is considerably less than the city’s $88 million — or $103 million, if the city loses its case against Duke Energy — share for the streetcar. But arguing through those numbers, as interchange and streetcar supporters point out, ignores the fact that both projects are investments that do far more than simply give people another way to move around.

In the end, the contradictions show some other belief is afoot. Perhaps it’s politics, apathy toward light rail or tensions between the urban core and suburbs. It’s hard to say.

Whatever the reason, elected officials should be smart enough to avoid flaunting such obvious hypocrisies in the public spotlight.

CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: [email protected] or @germanrlopez