Is City Council's approval last week of the streetcar financing plan a tipping point for the urban core of Cincinnati? Or is it a boondoggle like our two costly stadiums on the river?
Is the plan "big, bold, challenging and new," as Councilman Chris Bortz called it, something that will pull the city out of "50 years of decline?" Or is it a waste of $137 million that could fight crime and/or help our schools?
Will Cincinnati reap the development benefits that have occurred as the result of the streetcar line in Portland, Ore.? Or will we be the exception in the current wave of U.S. rail transit projects and screw it all up?
Contrary to what some people have argued, the 6-2 council vote April 23 didn't end discussion on these crucial questions but actually opened the debate. Council gave City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. marching orders to figure out the financing plan for a four-mile streetcar loop through downtown and Over-the-Rhine, and it also added a connection to the UC/Uptown area.
Initially, Dohoney needs to figure out how to pay for the $102-million downtown route and the $35-million Uptown connector. A future circulator route around UC will be the system's Phase 2 — if Phase 1 works out.
The biggest challenge is to find more than $60 million in private money, as about $71 million looks to be available in public financing from city bonds, downtown TIF revenues, the city's sale of the Blue Ash Airport and state grants.
And even that money isn't set in stone yet, particularly the state funds. Republican lawmakers from the state's suburbs and small towns must be convinced to support a public transit project entirely in Cincinnati's city limits, though it helps that Columbus and Dayton are also pursuing streetcar projects.
Well, the competition for dollars probably doesn't help. But with as many as 46 American cities building or planning modern streetcar lines, let's hope Ohio legislators understand the opportunity to get the state ahead of the curve for once.
And that's the pitch Dohoney needs to make to Cincinnati's corporate community. The city can have a functioning streetcar line from Great American Ball Park through downtown and Over-the-Rhine to Findlay Market in just a few years, making our system one of the next to come online in the entire country.
The sooner the downtown line is built, the sooner private investment can happen along the route and the sooner the UC/Uptown line can be built. Momentum can pick up quickly once the details are ironed out.
Kevin Osborne reports on CityBeat's Porkopolis blog about several creative ideas being floated for private financing, including local companies buying the streetcars themselves and leasing them to the city. Dohoney hopes to continue educating the community, with initial plans in place to host a huge streetcar forum in June featuring national experts.
Questions remain, and here's the key one: Does Cincinnati have the will and the confidence to think big and bold?
CONTACT JOHN FOX: [email protected]