The Little Engine That Could

Against all the odds, naysaying and obstructionism it’s faced, Cincinnati’s streetcar project is moving forward.

Against all the odds, naysaying and obstructionism it’s faced, Cincinnati’s streetcar project is moving forward. Not only is it receiving a necessary boost in financial support from City Council, but the project is also in line for another $5 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

For Cincinnati, the project’s renewed stability should provide optimism for those fighting to continue the city and region’s broader momentum. 

It was easy to be pessimistic about the streetcar project’s prospects just a few weeks ago when construction bids came in $26 million to $43 million over budget, putting the project’s budget gap at $17.4 million — not a small number by any means.

Even worse, the city government was mired in a tenuous political battle over its operating budget. Even though the streetcar is funded through the capital budget, which can’t be used for operating budget expenses because of limits established in state law, streetcar opponents consistently pulled the project into the other budget problem. The heated political climate could have easily given local officials the political cover necessary to abandon the streetcar.

But in a 5-4 vote, City Council agreed to continue supporting the streetcar project.

The moment should be seen as Cincinnati pushing back against its former demons. About a century ago, City Hall gave up on the city’s subway system after rising costs and political conflict grinded the project to a halt. The failure still haunts the city to this day. Even in the city’s current political dialogue, council members ranging from Chris Seelbach to Wendell Young have cited fears of repeating the subway embarrassment as reason enough to keep backing the streetcar.

It makes sense. When Cincinnati gave up on the subway system, the city sent a message to the rest of the world that it could not handle big projects and such ideas were simply not welcome in the Queen City.

City Manager Milton Dohoney has convincingly argued that the same dynamic would play out with the streetcar. Not only would giving up now show international businesses that the city is led by quitters, it would justifiably aggravate the federal government, which has provided about one-third of the streetcar project’s funds through several grants that aim to revitalize alternative, more efficient transportation options.

That’s especially true when the federal government is so clearly optimistic about the streetcar project and committing another $5 million. Cincinnati would be foolish to ignore such a faithful commitment to keep the streetcar project on track.

It’s important to remember the city is not taking up the streetcar in a vacuum; it’s embracing the project in a highly competitive world to show that it can compete with the best. Our leaders — and our citizens — proudly promote Cincinnati as a city on the verge of renewed greatness. Losing a voter-approved transit project to conservative political posturing doesn’t fit with that narrative.

It’s no coincidence Cincinnati was at the level of New York City and Chicago in terms of economic and population growth when it began the subway project. It’s no coincidence the city’s population plummeted following the subway project’s tumultuous end and the dismantling of the former streetcar system.

Most members of City Council seem to understand all of this. By tenaciously pursuing the streetcar project even when there’s no easy political cover to hide behind, city officials are showing the world that the momentum and optimism following Cincinnati is for real and well deserved.

Other News and Stuff

• Gov. John Kasich is expected to sign a fiscal year 2014-15 budget that will cut income taxes for all Ohioans by 10 percent over three years but will raise property and sales taxes. The plan also gives business owners a 50-percent tax break on annual net income up to $250,000, less than the $750,000 eligible in the Ohio Senate plan. The plan is effectively a merger of the two plans passed by the House and Senate, although the property and sales tax hikes are new additions. To balance the tax cuts, the plan will raise the sales tax from 5.5 percent to 5.75 percent, increase future property taxes by 12.5 percent and graduate future homestead tax exemptions to be based on income, with the neediest disabled, senior and widowed Ohioans getting the most out of the exemption. The overall tax plan is a lot closer to the original budget proposal from Kasich, which Policy Matters Ohio previously criticized for favoring the wealthy.

• Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the private prison company that bought and operates the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in northeastern Ohio, lost four contracts in June, following reports of rising violence. In May, CityBeat released an in-depth report that uncovered rising violence and unsanitary conditions at the company’s Lake Erie facility.

CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: [email protected] or @germanrlopez

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