Streetcar, Streetcar, Wherefore Art Thou, Streetcar?

“We don’t want that ‘Toy Train’ in our community!”

Sound familiar?

Well, that was the sentiment in Portland when the Streetcar first came to the area.  Or, should I say, the dreaded “S” word?

Then, last year, right before the City of Portland decided to double the length of the Streetcar line, more passengers were riding it than the light rail system in town.

So, why the hatred for the Streetcar in Cincinnati?  In my humble opinion, and after numerous conversations with transit experts & rail proponents AND opponents, there seems to be an irrational sense of fear that the Streetcar will actually revitalize downtown.

What?

I realize that statement may not make any real sense, so let me explain.

The WalMart lifestyle of 2013 is threatened by the Streetcar.  There are anti-rail blogs out there on the interwebs that claim things such as, “don’t let them build the first mile because, when they do, people will be clamoring for more!”

People will move downtown or into the city’s outlying neighborhoods and many facets of the city will change.  For the better.

Now, please do not misinterpret me here, I am not railing (pun intended) against the ‘burbs.  I like the ‘burbs and they are an excellent option for people who want to live there.  I grew up in the ‘burbs.  No beef with the ‘burbs.  Perhaps this fear of lifestyle change is my conspiracy theory, but after all of my research and conversation, I cannot see any logical reason to hate the Streetcar more than nuclear proliferation in North Korea (which is how much I feel some people hate the Streetcar).

In 2007, after the feasibility study was completed on the Streetcar’s viability in Cincinnati, it was found that the benefit-cost ratio for the City was 15.2 to 1.  Meaning that for every $1 that Cincinnati spent on the Streetcar, they would actualize a $15.20 return.  The University of Cincinnati corroborated the data and said that the claim was “credible.”

People claim that the Streetcar would not get enough riders to make it a financially responsible venture.  Well, only 2% of downtown workers, 2% of convention attendees, and 2% of those living in Over-the-Rhine would have to ride it daily to meet the desired ridership for viability.

Did you read my “Striking a Balance” post?  The one in which I claimed that the property tax abatement had to end?  Well, if it does, the Streetcar is estimated to bring in $34 million ADDITIONAL property taxes to the city.

Now, let me pause.  I realize that many reading this are thinking, “yeah, but these are all just PROJECTIONS.”  This is true, but when you do something that is forward thinking, especially for the first time (second time for the Streetcar, technically, in this City), you have to rely on projections.  Remember landing on the moon?  Projections.  How about The Banks Project?  Projections.

The Banks, it should be noted, had the same fear associated with it as the Streetcar.  And now my wife and I can hardly find a table in ANY of the restaurants down there.  I suppose that things are going well.  My friend, Derek, and I met yesterday.  He told me that in the past year he has seen a massive increase in his friends living in Mason asking him where they should go to eat Downtown.  I have seen the very same thing.  Many people with whom I am friends and who live in Montgomery, West Chester, Kenwood, etc., are constantly e-mailing me, texting me, Facebooking me, whatevering me to see where they should go out in Downtown Cincinnati.  People want to be down here.  And people want to live here.  But they won’t want to live here if our progress keeps stalling.  And it seems as if certain groups WANT people to stop coming downtown.  Weird.

Anyway.

Back in 2007, the City had a plan to get the funding for the Streetcar route – you know the one, the one that extended up into Clifton.  Yup, that one.

Things broke down like this (notice that the taxpayer wasn’t getting hammered by the financial plans):

$25 million from capital bonds – $25 million from tax increment financing – $31 million from PRIVATE contributors – $11 million from the proceeds of the sale of the Blue Ash Airport – $10 million from State grants – the remaining $80 to $85 million for the Uptown system was going to come from Federal grants.

(spoiler alert – the story is about to take a turn)

ENTER the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes. . . . . COAST!

“Referendum!”  They screamed.

And so, in 2009, signatures were collected (sound familiar?) and a ballot issue trying to slam the Streetcar was put in front of voters and. . . . .the voters slammed COAST, saying that they wanted the Streetcar.

But wait!  Our story is not complete!

Usher in 2011.  Usher in the self-appointed saviors of the tax-paying citizen. . . . .COAST!

“Referendum!”  They screamed (again).

And so (stop me if this gets repetitive), in 2011, signatures were collected (hm?) and a ballot issue to not only stop the Streetcar, but spending on rail of ANY kind until 2020 was put in front of voters. . . . .the voters, once again, slammed COAST, saying that they wanted the Streetcar.

“Why has it taken so long to get going with the Streetcar,” you ask?  Well, there you have it.

“Why has the project become more expensive,” you ask?  Well, there you have it.

Saving people money & advocating for the working citizen are NOT the same thing as impeding progress.  Not to me, they aren’t.

So, here we are – with a shorter rail line, bids that have exceeded estimates (inflation due to delay sure didn’t help), a proposal to hire Deatrick and pay him out of the Capital, not General, fund, and people still saying that we shouldn’t have a Streetcar.  Even though the VOTERS have said, repeatedly, that they want it.

Think that the young professionals moving to Cincinnati will stay if the Streetcar doesn’t get built?  Think those YPs won’t skip town for Chicago once they see us catering to stale, age-old ideologies?  Think that the folks who bought property downtown in 2007/2008 so that they could open businesses will stick around if the Streetcar vanishes?  Think my friend Derek, of whom I spoke earlier (the one with friends in Mason), will stick around in Cincinnati if the Streetcar becomes a thing of the past?

If you do, then you are wrong.

The Streetcar has to happen for our forward momentum to continue.  Anything worth doing takes a lot of work, just ask the folks who worked on the Roebling bridge, the original Streetcar system, the failed Subway, or any other project that some Cincinnatians fought tooth and nail.

Never mind, I suppose you can’t ask those people unless you perform a seance.  Ok, so ask the folks who have worked so hard to get The Banks open.  They’ll tell you.  We must not be so shortsighted of the past OR the future.

As those of you who actually read my posts know, I am a huge fan of fun facts.  So, in closing, I leave you with some:

– Did you know that ONE additional parking space for an apartment or condo can add as much as $50,000 to the price of the unit?  Imagine if you didn’t NEED a parking spot.  Your condo/apartment would be cheaper!  How cool is that?

– The average Cincinnatian spends around $8,000 on his/her car.  Wow.  Imagine that $8,000 getting pumped back into our local economy!  Imagine more people living and working downtown!  Imagine that additional revenue fattening up the war chest on Plum Street and cops/firefighters NOT having to be laid off!  Pretty sweet.

– Get this:  The Streetcar will not raise your taxes by even ONE PENNY.  What?!?!  “Then why is COAST so angry,” you ask.  Well, I got nothing for you there.  They just always seem to be angry for some reason.  I think they hate Downtown Cincinnati.  In fact, the Streetcar will bring more people downtown, increase the tax BASE, promote job growth AND cut down on traffic.  The result?  LOWER taxes since City Hall will be better funded to help pay for all of the public services that we all love and enjoy.

– Now this part is really crazy, so be ready.  When the Streetcar extends to Avondale, Mt. Auburn, Clifton, etc., many more people without transportation, like college students and low-income people, will be able to get to work, reduce unemployment, and boost our local economy.  Believe it or not, not everyone has a car and getting to work so they can KEEP their job is a burden on them and their families.  The Streetcar would help people without transportation to accomplish this task.  But, to EXTEND the Streetcar lines, they have to be BUILT first.

– A cool difference between Streetcars and buses?  Streetcars induce land development, buses don’t.  That said, buses are still pretty cool and awesome.  No disrespect meant, buses.

– But, not everything is rosy!  One thing we need to plan for is the strain that the Streetcar would put on our affordable housing stock.  Since Streetcars have proven, time and time again, to encourage more development, affordable housing could be in jeopardy of being negatively impacted.  To protect against this, I propose upzoning certain areas so supply can keep pace with demand.  I also propose MANDATING inclusionary zoning in new developments.

There you have it.

When something has never been tried it is certain to have a lot of push back.  I would like to note, before I conclude, that it is much easier to fight something that hasn’t happened than to support it.  This has been seen throughout history in large and seemingly small moments:   The Civil Rights Movement, the current debate over marriage equality, development or redevelopment of our nation’s urban core, Obamacare, abolition, the printing press, the advent of the automobile, the internet, and many more – too many to name.

I talk to a lot of people daily.  Most of those people care about the city’s ability to balance a budget and jobs.  Many of them have more significant and pressing issues such as finding a way out of poverty or addiction.  They do not have the time to care about the Streetcar’s benefits or shortcomings.  That is the elected and soon-to-be-elected leaders’ jobs.  Our job is to research, explain, and implement.  Our job is to tell the truth and make our best judgment on the information with which we have been presented so that the citizens of our city can go about living happy, fulfilled lives.  Our job is NOT to fulfill our own ideological dreams, our own political aspirations, or our own agendas.  Our job is NOT to use the public’s awareness, or lack thereof, to push through our own self-aggrandizing ideals.

No.  We are here to do hard work, envision a brighter future for all, and help people understand that vision for Cincinnati.  Many will ultimately disagree, but hopefully they will be able to understand WHY we made the decisions that we did.  Many people’s dissatisfaction now is that they do not understand why certain groups or politicians are doing the things that they are doing.  My promise to all of you, once I am elected, is not to always agree with you or do what you want me to do, but to make the best decision I can with the information I have and to explain, in detail, and transparently, WHY I am making that decision.  And I assure you that I will never make a decision based on what I think is best for my friends and me.  I will make my decisions based on what I feel is best for our City and our City’s future – only after gathering YOUR input and doing hours and hours of research.

The Streetcar is good for our future.  I will stand by that statement.  If, in ten years, I find that I was wrong, I will admit that I was wrong.

Let’s continue our momentum, people.  Let’s make Chicago wish they were Cincinnati all year ’round, not just during baseball season.

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