The Enquirer's Streetcar Numbers Don't Add Up

Splashed across The Enquirer's front page May 23 in a font size usually reserved for the declaration of war or World Series championships was the headline "Poll: Most Oppose Streetcars." The article's tone was quickly set by its claim that Cincinnatians

For supporters of Cincinnati’s proposed streetcar system, it was the final straw.

Having discussed privately among themselves for the past few months what they viewed as unfair, lopsided coverage of the streetcar debate by The Enquirer, the lead story in the newspaper’s May 23 edition brought their simmering anger into public view.

And in a big way.

Splashed across The Enquirer’s front page Sunday in a font size usually reserved for the declaration of war or World Series championships was the headline “Poll: Most Oppose Streetcars.”

The article’s tone was quickly set by its breathless, cleverly worded first paragraph: “Cincinnatians overwhelmingly oppose the proposed $128 million streetcar project, objecting 2-to-1 to City Hall’s plan to borrow tens of millions of dollars for a plan widely viewed as a waste of taxpayer money, an Enquirer poll shows.” Or did it?

Sure, the poll found that respondents opposed City Council’s recent decision to borrow $64 million to help pay for construction, by 61 percent to 31 percent. But if readers delve into the poll’s details, which The Enquirer posted online but not in the newspaper, they will find some important nuances to the findings.

In fact, “nuance” might be understating the case; the phrase “significant caveats” probably is more accurate.

As numerous bloggers and critics have noted, the poll results show the alleged overwhelming opposition is just to the funding method for the streetcar system, not to the project itself. Yes, 48 percent of respondents said that the streetcar is a “waste of taxpayer money.” Still, another 24 percent said that it “will help revitalize Cincinnati’s core,” while 20 percent said it’s a “risky project but one that should proceed anyway to help Cincinnati.”

For readers bad at math, I’ll do it for you: That’s 48 percent opposed to the project and 44 percent in favor — in a poll with a margin of error of 4.1 percent. In other words, there’s no statistical difference. (Another 7 percent were unsure.) Maybe it’s time to rethink that headline.

Moreover, as the mayor’s office quickly pointed out, the latest results show support increasing during the past year. A similar poll conducted in April 2009 before last year’s Issue 9 campaign found 59 percent were opposed to the project and 38 percent supported it, meaning the pro-streetcar side is gaining momentum.

After discussing a streetcar system for years, Cincinnati officials recently have been moving ahead by assembling a financing plan in hopes of nabbing some federal grants. Supporters have pointed to the effect streetcars have had in other cities, sparking redevelopment and increasing property values within a three-block radius of their route.

For example, local resident John Hamlet recently bought a large complex of buildings along Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine, near Findlay Market, on the proposed route. “I plan on leasing the spaces to artists for low-cost studios and opening a gallery on the first floor in the storefront,” Hamlet said. “If I didn’t think the streetcar was being built, there is no way I would’ve invested down here.”

For the past few weeks, CityBeat — with the help of some streetcar supporters — has been tabulating the number of letters to the editor published by The Enquirer about the streetcar project. Between Jan. 1 and May 17, the newspaper printed 56 letters against the project and just six in favor. A whopping 39 of the anti-streetcar letters came from writers who live outside city limits.

That means 66 percent of the letters about streetcars originate from outside of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods, and the letters published have a 94.9 percent negativity rate.

Of course, The Enquirer’s editors can print whatever letters they choose. But they can’t claim they don’t have any pro-streetcar letters to choose from, because many supporters have come forward who say they regularly write but their letters never see the light of day.

(Since the overwhelmingly negative response to The Enquirer’s poll, editors have been more careful. From May 23-25, the newspaper printed 13 letters about the project: three against and 10 in favor.)

The letters page results are troubling but not surprising, because The Enquirer has had a bias for suburban readers and issues for the past several years. In 2005, editors gave reporters a memo about which communities the paper would focus on and, implicitly, which it wouldn’t. Most of the favored areas were suburbs in Butler, Clermont and Warren counties.

The rationale for the focus seems sensible at first blush.

Those are areas growing in population, so that’s where the newspaper is likely to snag new subscribers. Also, those areas generally are wealthier, and The Enquirer can charge more for ads bought by businesses there. Editors even devised a lame nickname for the areas, “The Edge,” because they’re located on the perimeter of the I-275 loop. (Surely that’s the only time West Chester and Butler County have been considered “edgy” by anyone’s standards.)

For a while, that meant most articles written about Cincinnati’s urban core involved either crime or the shenanigans of City Council, providing a truly warped view of the Queen City. The situation actually has improved during the past two years as The Enquirer recommitted itself to harder news and enterprise reporting after more than 100 staffers were laid off or left.

Really, though, it might boil down to a matter of perspective.

The Enquirer’s top guns are suburbanites through and through. Publisher Margaret Buchanan lives in Indian Hill; Editor Tom Callinan lives in Blue Ash. How many other editors actually live within city limits? I’m willing to bet not many do.

In the newspaper’s May 10 editorial, editors bemoaned, “The streetcar may be a real step forward for Cincinnati. We don’t oppose it. But we object to the way it has — or hasn’t — been planned, explained and justified. So far, city leaders have been asking Cincinnatians to support a pig in a poke. Again: Where’s the plan?”

First, we don’t recall The Enquirer being so hesitant back in 1996 when it urged taxpayers to increase the county sales tax to build new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals. That project involved far less development spinoff and direct benefit for residents but did help millionaire team owners. Regardless, the plan has been a disaster, causing looming deficits for Hamilton County.

If the newspaper’s Op/Ed board merely had asked city staffers and streetcar planners, it could’ve gotten answers to many of its questions. It didn’t, because it probably didn’t want them.

Let’s remember The Enquirer’s Oct. 27, 2002, editorial against the ambitious Metro Moves plan. Voters were asked to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to build a light-rail system and expand bus routes. The newspaper liked the bus portion but didn’t like the rail plan, stating: “The fixed rail plan needs further refinement … light rail could have a future in Cincinnati, but a convincing case for significant ridership has yet to be made.”

That’s the newspaper’s tired mantra: “We’re not against rail, we’re just against this plan” or “Not now, not now, not now.”

Steve Leeper, president of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC), believes the system would be an economic boon.

“We think the streetcar has the potential to be a great economic development tool for the city,” he says. “A fixed line that connects two great business centers, the Central Business District and uptown, and runs through a rebounding mixed use district like Over-the-Rhine, would no doubt bring tremendous benefits to our city.”

By the way, the excellent CincyStreetcar blog used The Enquirer poll’s own premise to show the system could turn a profit. A poll question asked about likely ridership based on “if the streetcar ran every 10 to 20 minutes and cost $1 to ride” found it would generate $25.9 million in annual revenue. Subtracting the estimated $3.5 million in operating costs, the city would have $22.4 million left over each year. Wow.

Those numbers probably are overly optimistic, just as opponents’ complaints are overly pessimistic. One indisputable fact, however, is that in Portland, Ore., and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., actual ridership has been higher than estimated. That’s a good predictor of things to come.

If all of those facts don’t persuade The Enquirer’s editorial board, maybe this one will.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently wrote, “(E)ach 1 percent of regional travel shifted from automobile to public transit increases regional income about $2.9 million, resulting in 226 additional regional jobs. Other economic benefits include increased productivity, employment, business activity, investment and redevelopment.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say LaHood probably knows a little more about the topic than mass transit foes like Tom Luken, Chris Finney and The Enquirer’s top brass.

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