Streetcar Battle Gets Ugly

Cincinnati is a city that was settled predominantly by German Catholics, but I doubt if even the most devout modern-day resident knows Latin well enough to understand what "e.g." means. The obscure abbreviation is at the center of the latest debate over

Sep 2, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Cincinnati is a city that was settled predominantly by German Catholics, but I doubt if even the most devout modern-day resident knows Latin well enough to understand what “e.g.” means.

Sure, you might know because you’re smart enough to read CityBeat and therefore probably have a curious mind. And I know because it’s my job to work with words.

But ever since Latin fell out of general use among many Catholics in the mid-1960s, bizarre abbreviations like “e.g.” hold little meaning for most people outside of lawyers and language professors.

The obscure abbreviation, however, is at the center of the latest debate over whether Cincinnati should build a $185 million streetcar system that connects downtown and Over-the-Rhine with the uptown area near the University of Cincinnati and local hospitals.

Earlier this year, a bizarre coalition that includes the NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter and the ultra-right Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) successfully collected enough signatures to place a referendum on the November ballot involving the streetcar project. If approved, the referendum would prohibit City Council from spending any taxpayer money to buy land for or build a passenger rail project without first putting the matter to a vote of the people.

The actual wording for the ballot issue submitted by the NAACP and COAST reads:

“Shall the Charter of the City of Cincinnati be amended to prohibit the city, and its various boards and commissions, from spending any monies for right-of-way acquisition or construction of improvements for passenger rail transportation (e.g., a trolley or streetcar) within the city limits without first submitting the question of approval of such expenditure to a vote of the electorate of the city and receiving a majority affirmative vote for the same by enacting new Article XIV?”

Streetcar supporters, though, are crying foul over the wording.

They say the measure is deceptive because it’s written broadly enough that it would affect any spending for non-streetcar related passenger rail projects like state and federal efforts to build a high-speed rail connector between Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, a project being pushed by President Obama, among others. Although those types of projects mostly are funded at the federal level, they usually require some local matching funds.

Mass transit supporters say voters who might oppose the streetcar system but support other rail projects could be fooled into approving the ballot measure, falsely assuming it applies only to the city project. If the measure is approved, it would require costly political campaigns to get any rail project done and the time delays involved probably would hamper any state or federal aid, effectively killing projects for the region.

Transit supporters say if the word “streetcar” is left intact, other types of transportation like commuter rail and high-speed rail should be added, to make it clearer.

Whether COAST and the NAACP meant to affect all rail projects is unknown, because officials so far haven’t directly addressed the question, but it’s safe to assume they did. That’s because COAST has a history of being against public transit projects, calling them "boondoggles." (Nevermind the endless cycle of highway expansion that requires large infusions of state and federal cash.)

What’s odd is that the NAACP would play along with this gambit.

Many passenger rail projects — like the countywide light rail plan defeated by voters in November 2002 — are designed to help improve access for poorer, inner-city residents to suburban areas like Mason and West Chester, where jobs tend to grow faster. Had the “Metro Moves” plan been approved seven years ago, the first phase would have been completed by now, surely a benefit to low-income residents who don’t own cars or can't afford high gas prices. One would hope the NAACP would want to increase choices for the poor.

COAST’s motives are suspect, and the local NAACP is foolish to be an accomplice.

All of which brings us to the Sept. 1 meeting of Cincinnati City Council’s rules committee. Mass transit supporters appeared before the committee and asked members to remove the parenthetical phrase "(e.g., a trolley or streetcar)" from the ballot wording. Under law, City Council gets to weigh in on ballot issues, as does the Hamilton County Board of Elections. If a dispute occurs over wording after those two groups deal with a ballot issue, the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office can issue an opinion or either side in the dispute can file a lawsuit.

Chris Finney, an attorney for the NAACP and a COAST leader, warned City Council not to remove the parenthetical phrase unless it wanted to face a legal challenge. The wording isn’t confusing, he added.

“They teach you what ‘e.g.’ means in grade school,” Finney told City Council.

That I seriously doubt. Maybe Finney — an arch-conservative activist who works in Hyde Park and lives in Anderson Township — needs to get out of his comfort zone and visit a city classroom sometime.

For the record, e.g. is an abbreviation for “exempli gratia,” a Latin phrase meaning “for the sake of example.”

Ultimately, City Council agreed with Finney (pictured) and no changes were made. Because the wording is identical to the petitions signed by nearly 11,000 people, it shouldn’t be altered, said Councilman Chris Bortz.

Opponents of the wording can also ask the Board of Elections to alter it, although it’s unclear if that would happen. In any case, the dispute probably is headed before a judge in coming weeks.

City officials want to build a streetcar system to spark redevelopment of vacant and underutilized properties along the route, as has occurred with great success in Portland, Ore. Critics counter that the streetcar alone wasn’t responsible for the redevelopment there, which required other subsidies.

A recent article in The Economist described the havoc that frequent citizen referendums have had on California’s budget, causing a virtual shutdown of state government. It described referendums as “the crack cocaine of democracy,” something that seems attractive but eventually is destructive.

With the flurry of referendums that COAST and the NAACP have put on the ballot in recent years, maybe it’s time for rehab — in the form of making the requirements more stringent.

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