CITY SPOTLIGHT: Cincinnati Chooses the Streetcar...but Why?
This post is part of a new series on the CNU Salons, CITY SPOTLIGHT. City Spotlight shines a light on the latest news, developments and initiatives occurring in cities and towns where CNU members live and work.
The below post is part III of a City Spotlight on Cincinnati and comes courtesy of CNU Communications Intern, and University of Cincinnati Urban Planning student, Katie Poppel.
Cincinnati is bringing back the streetcar. Voters approved the streetcar last November by a margin of 52-48%, following the approval of a $137 million streetcar plan by City Council in 2008. The first installment will cost $95 million with the main funding coming from 'city financing,' and will stretch from Second Street to Findlay Market. The first phase will run from Second to Henry, as seen in the map below. (Image courtesy of the City of Cincinnati Streetcar website.)
The ballot language on Issue 48 combined with the narrow passage of 52/48 are the most frightening aspects of the streetcar approval. In the most basic of terms, Cincinnatians voted 'no' to allow the city to bring back the streetcar and research other modes of rail transportation for Cincinnati in the future and 'yes' to abandon all rail systems until after 2020. Makes sense right?
In summary, the ballot read "the City shall not spend or appropriate any money on the design, engineering, construction or operation of a Streetcar System, or any portion thereof. Further, the City shall not incur any indebtedness or contractual obligations for the purpose of financing, designing, engineering, constructing or operating of a Streetcar System, or any portion thereof.…this amendment applies from the date it is certified to the Charter, and will continue in effect until December 31, 2020. ...the term "Streetcar System" means a system of passenger vehicles operated on rails constructed primarily in existing public rights of way..." (cincinnati.com.)
Therefore, a citizen voted "no" to provide the City to build the streetcar and consider other options of rail after, and "yes" for the City to provide no public rail system, streetcar included, until 2020, (when this entire situation would start over again.) So, the phrase I heard way too often, "Vote No on Issue 48," actually means you are approving the streetcar system.
Two scenarios to consider: (1) citizens actually knew what they were reading and followed the perplexing wording, or (2) uninformed citizens voted "No" because they thought it would stop the streetcar. If you're confused, you probably are not the only one.
According the City of Cincinnati streetcar website, the source of streetcar funding is a combination of $64 million city financing, $29 million via grants, and $6.5 million from private funding. These sources will cover the $95 million first phase of the streetcar system. There has been some speculation, from quite a few self-proclaimed opposers of the streetcar, that the funding will include an increase in taxes. Cincinnati does have a 1977 court ruling that allows for property taxation without limitation. (This is not a commonality in Ohio.) The court case was an appeal from the First Appellate District, Hamilton County to limit the amount the City could levy for property taxes. This is a questionable argument, as I question if property taxes should not be limited due to inflation (That is definitely not my area of expertise.) John Cranely, former city council-member and developer, leads the argument that the city plans to use this "unlimited property tax" to cover the debt from the streetcar. Another view at the funding aspect: what else could the money be used for? Improving current public transportation? More revitalization in Over-the-Rhine?
"We need the streetcar because..."
I recently watched a commercial via Youtube promoting the streetcar. The commercial attributed "more money, people, services, and safety," as benefits of the future streetcar. The City of Cincinnati website for the streetcar lists casino and parking meter revenue, fare box, and naming rights as sources for covering the annual $2.5M operating cost.
I understand that the City believes the streetcar will bring economic prosperity to the corridor it travels, which is probably partially true. There will be more prosperity for the retail, office, and residential spaces along the streetcar corridor. But, I highly doubt it will be as much as projected. The people living along the corridor includes a mix of lower-income families and young professionals. (Phase One is about 50% in Over-the-Rhine, the most deteriorated and crime-ridden region within Cincinnati, and 50% in the core of downtown Cincinnati.) Lower-income families are not stopping at high-end boutiques and speciality restaurants on a regular basis. That puts a lot of pressure on the imaginary, "prospected" visitors to Cincinnati and the residents of the area. "Not to mention that if all the projections are indeed true, this plan then threatens the viability of Over-the-Rhine for those less well-heeled in the first place. The streetcar route planned does include the downtown core neighborhood center, but continues west of the designated Over-the-Rhine neighborhood center as established by Plan Cincinnati. Are people really going to buy a approximately $2.25 fare to ride from Second Street to Seventh Street? It's maybe 6 blocks and less than 1/2 a mile.
There is also much comparison between cities with streetcars and Cincinnati. First and foremost, it is unfair to compare cities of uneven proportions. Cincinnati has around 300,000 people in roughly 80 square miles. When compared to Charlotte (about 750,000 people, 300 squared miles,) Tucson (584,000, 227,) or Portland (594,000, 133,) the comparison doesn't say much. (Wikipedia.) You also have to look at the mindset of the people living in that region; Portland, for instance, is very sustainability-focused. Portland residents will choose public transportation over the automobile. Cincinnati is dependent on the automobile; if you don't believe me, count the parking lots and people who ride mass transit. You might argue that the said 'car-culture' rules over mass transit because of lack of options. Maybe that is true. But the likelihood of residents using the streetcar system to get to work is slim to none. Most residents who work downtown drive from out of Cincinnati or from the outer edges, not blighted Over-the-Rhine. Why not choose the more cost-effective option of updating the bus system to include bus rapid-transit, or even bringing buses further out of Cincinnati's core to cater to those commuting? Citizen mindset and comparisons are tricky aspects.
Obviously, I am a few months too late with this article. However, I truly hope this can serve as an example of how poorly written legislation mars the approval of the streetcar system. A city should strive to approve projects with straightforward approaches. Public officials should be speaking for the citizens they represent, not their hidden agendas. A streetcar system needs a solid purpose that will benefit the residents; there is not enough draw for Cincinnati to desire a streetcar.
Honestly, as an student, future urban planner, Cincinnatian, New Urbanist, and more, it's very hard for me to accept that the streetcar is really what Cincinnatians want. I fully support sustainable transportation initiatives, public transportation especially, but the facts mentioned above are alarming. The spin the proponents of the streetcar publicized are out of context. Economic stimulation, more jobs, a safer environment, etc can all be reached through other efforts, mainly revitalization in my eyes, that are more cost-effective and reasonable. Not the streetcar.
Stay tuned for Part IV: The Parking War in Cincinnati.
Due to a large response, another part was written: Cincinnati and the Streetcar: Part II.
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