If seeing is believing, Cincinnatians who have used light rail might be more likely to believe in it. To find out, John Schneider, transportation advisor for Downtown Cincinnati Inc., organized a trip in early May to Portland, Ore. — the Mecca for light rail advocates. Joining him were 21 people, ranging from hard-core suburban opponents to skeptical business owners to neutral residents — a "Noah's Ark" of sorts, Schneider says.
"It was really an eye-opener for a lot of people," he says.
It worked so well Schneider is organizing another trip June 27 to July 1. Perhaps more than any other American city, Portland is cited as the example of how light rail and mass transit can work. Thirty-eight percent of Portlanders use the city's 33-mile light rail line at least twice a month, according to Schneider. That translates to 75,000 people a day, or 26 percent of the city's transit riders.
Schneider and others who visited Portland were impressed by its downtown, which they say has many more trees, shops and activity and is generally a welcoming, more friendly place to visit than Cincinnati's downtown.
"Basically, they made their downtown a place for people," Schneider says.
In the 1970s Portland's economy, based largely on timber and other natural resources, was in a slump. So in the 1980s the city turned its attention toward attracting high-tech businesses and tourism, with a focus on making downtown the center of the city. Portland invested heavily in public transit, including light rail, buses and trolleys.
Schneider believes light rail deserves part but not all of the credit for the city's active downtown. Portland has a track record of good urban planning, paying attention to details in its parks and streets. Metro, the area's three-county regional government, manages an urban-growth boundary outside of which development is curbed. Metro also coordinates public transportation with land use planning.
Furthermore, Portland has a reputation for attracting young people, while Cincinnati has the opposite reputation. Forbes.com recently rated Cincinnati the 40th-most attractive city for singles among 40 cities it examined.
"We are not tolerant of new ideas," Schneider says. "I think a lot of people here are very content."
The long road to light rail
Cincinnati began its light rail efforts in 1993, when the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) — the eight-county agency that handles transit policy — decided to look at the 119 miles of rail corridors in the region, starting with the Interstate 71 corridor. Forty-four percent of the jobs and 22 percent of the population are in that area, according to Judi Craig, OKI's light rail project manager.
In 1994 OKI began a study that decided light rail — instead of buses or a wider I-71 — was the preferred option for moving more people. In 1998 OKI hired engineers to study possible routes and identify economic impact. A public relations campaign to explain light rail began.
Polls indicate 70 percent of residents support the concept of light rail, but only about 40 percent support a tax hike to pay for it, Craig says. The light rail line would cost several hundred million dollars. Craig said the federal and state governments should pay for 75 percent of the project. But even if voters agreed to finance the rest, OKI's light rail proposal is one of about 100 projects across the nation competing for federal funding. Then there's the complexity of getting Northern Kentucky voters to also approve a tax and coordinating a project crossing state lines.
Opposition to light rail sprang up more than a year ago in Deer Park and Sycamore Township and more recently in Norwood and Over-the-Rhine. Opponents worry about the 18-mile line between Blue Ash and Covington fitting in with existing neighborhoods, the noise it would generate and its safety and cost.
Millie Schafer of Pleasant Ridge remains skeptical, even after a few days in Portland. The 57-year-old environmental microbiologist says light rail won't ease congestion or pollution much and will disrupt neighborhoods.
Schafer isn't against all public transit. She's curious about Metromoves, the sweeping update of Cincinnati's bus network, which she believes might be a better value.
Paul Steman, 62, retired services director for the city of Silverton, says he "wasn't too thrilled" with light rail when he first heard about it. His main concern was light rail might slow traffic as it crossed Montgomery Road. But after timing a similar crossing in Portland, he discovered it only took about one minute.
Steman, who has used subways in Washington, D.C. and New York City, was also impressed by the openness and cleanliness of Portland's trains. Portland also had more retail options downtown than does Cincinnati, Steman says, and shoppers use light rail to get to them.
"I pretty well turned around (my opinion)," Steman says.
Kaldi's owner Sonya McDonnell, like other Over-the-Rhine business owners, worries about the disruption a light rail project would cause her restaurant. OKI's route plan calls for a light rail line along Main Street.
Going to Portland didn't alleviate McDonnell's concerns, but did convince her light rail can work well in a city the size of Cincinnati.
"At the beginning, I was really on the fence about it," McDonnell says.
Expecting light rail being to be disruptive to cars and pedestrians, McDonnell found they mix well in Portland. Light rail carries another benefit, as well.
"The buses are a lot louder" at street level, McDonnell says.
Will Scheider's effort make a difference? It's going to take many more plane trips than he can afford to get most of the conservative, tax-fighting West Side to Portland.
Schneider says skepticism will help produce a better light rail project, but one has to wonder about his chances. U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Cincinnati) is totally opposed to light rail, and others on the Hamilton County Commission and Cincinnati City Council are lukewarm at best. Some like the concept, but believe the city isn't ready.
We might know soon enough. Queen City Metro is considering a countywide tax levy for light rail on the November ballot, according to Craig. ©