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Train Wreck

Ballot initiative coalition led by NAACP chapter targets city's streetcar plan

By Kevin Osborne · January 7th, 2009 · News
A diverse coalition of groups led by the NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter that blocked Hamilton County officials from increasing the sales tax in 2007 to build a new jail has set its sights on another project: the city’s proposed streetcar system.

The NAACP recently launched a petition drive to place an issue on the November ballot that would amend the city’s charter to prevent Cincinnati officials from spending money on the streetcar project without first getting approval from city voters. The charter is the city’s governing document, just as the U.S. Constitution provides guidelines and restrictions at the federal level.

If the charter amendment is successful, City Council specifically would be prohibited from using taxpayer money to buy land or construct any improvements needed for passenger rail transportation within the city limits without first going to voters.

Some political activists and community leaders are heralding the NAACP’s latest referendum as grassroots democracy in action. Streetcar supporters, however, say such frequent petition efforts hamper the proper functioning of government, which lets elected officials study complicated issues and then make informed decisions as representatives of the people.

Not true, counters Christopher Smitherman, NAACP chapter president.

“Referendums are as American as apple pie,” Smitherman says. “Our organization believes a $200 million streetcar system is not a priority for our tax dollars when the city is facing budget problems and City Council continues to cut basic services to citizens.”

Within 48 hours of launching its petition drive last month, the NAACP had collected about 200 signatures. That number has now increased to about 500, and the group must collect 6,300 by August to qualify for the fall ballot.

Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Bortz says the petition effort is misguided and unnecessary.

“It’s premature,” says Bortz, who heads City Council’s economic development committee. “There’s no financing plan before council. There’s no final plan.”

In April 2008, City Council approved the initial planning stages for a long-discussed $102 million streetcar loop through downtown and Over-the-Rhine as well as an initial $35 million connector link to the uptown area near the University of Cincinnati. Eventually, a loop also would be built in the uptown area for another $48 million.

If the streetcar system is successful, additional routes could be built in other parts of the city during the next several decades.

The city’s preliminary financing plan calls for obtaining at least $31 million in contributions from private sources along with generating $25 million in debt financing through bonds that would be repaid using the city’s capital projects budget. City Council authorized City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. to begin negotiations with area companies to raise the private sector’s share of the money; those talks are underway.

Another $25 million would come from tax increment financing (TIF) revenues, taxes generated by new development along the streetcar route; $11 million from the sale of Blue Ash Airport, which was owned by the city; and $10 million from state grants.

Further, reliable sources tell CityBeat that local officials are lobbying to have President-elect Obama’s upcoming state-by-state economic stimulus package include some funding for the streetcar project.

As Dohoney continues trying to get private firms to help with the cost, the next step in the planning process will involve looking at applications from transit companies interested in building and operating the system. Those applications are due back to the city by month’s end and will be vetted by Dohoney and his staff.

“There are companies that do this all over the world,” Bortz says. “Many are European-based and have a lot of experience with passenger rail.”

A city feasibility study in 2007 concluded the streetcar project would have a $1.4 billion economic impact as it helps spark residential and commercial redevelopment on blighted and vacant properties along the route as similar systems have done in Portland, Ore., and elsewhere.

“It’s designed to attract jobs and build the economy,” Bortz says. “I’m perplexed about why the NAACP would be against that.”

But Smitherman believes the money could be better spent elsewhere, such as in neighborhood business districts. Streetcar systems are a risky gamble that have failed in some cities, he says, and Cincinnati’s mostly would benefit people who own property along the proposed route and developers like Towne Properties, which is owned by Bortz’s family.

“Working to get fair disbursement of public resources equally across the community is a civil rights issue,” Smitherman says. “It’s the new frontier. It’s no longer just about picketing and marches and boycotts in the 21st Century.

“We’ve seen the massive amounts of tax dollars constantly going into just a few neighborhoods (like downtown and Over-the-Rhine).

Only when it involves gentrification do we see any money going into low-income areas. We believe the real battles are at the ballot box and in the courts, so everyone gets a fair shake.”

The NAACP isn’t alone in its latest battle.

The Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and the “We Demand A Vote” group also support the petition effort. Those organizations — which include both liberals and conservatives — worked together in 2007 to resoundingly defeat a county sales tax hike to build a new jail and again last fall to block Cincinnati officials from installing automated cameras at intersections that would have been used to fine motorists who ran red lights.

Bortz and others believe the city’s charter should be used only to set broader policy and operational guidelines — such as how many council votes are needed to enact tax increases — and not for specific issues like red-light cameras or individual development projects.

“To clutter up the city charter with these things is just bad government and is the wrong way to set policy,” Bortz says.

Voters elect City Council members, he says, and they make decisions based on the recommendations of City Hall’s professional staff such as community planners and budget analysts, who have the time and expertise to delve into complicated issues.

“The structure of our government was designed so professional people would be making these types of decisions after study and deliberation,” Bortz adds. “Most of these issues aren’t the types of things that should be decided based on sound bites.”

Among those who defend the use of petition drives and voter referenda is political activist Jason Haap, the local blogger known as the Dean of Cincinnati, who operates The Cincinnati Beacon Web site.

“The status quo would have us believe the charter is some kind of sacred document, as if sacrilege would be committed to defile its words,” Haap says. “This is nonsense propagated, in part, by the well-connected and powerful interests threatened by the notion that citizens can stand up and demand their say — a perspective that may run contrary to corporate interests with City Hall lobbyists.”

Citing last year’s amendment approved by voters that banned red-light cameras, Haap says the charter can be changed — and changed again — to suit the mood of the electorate.

“These critics make a charter amendment into a bigger deal than they should,” Haap says. “Any amendment can be revoked at a later time. So it’s not like red-light cameras, for example, will be banned forever. If a group really thinks red-light cameras can save our city, they can petition to get their issue on the ballot and change the charter.”

Cincinnati officials first began discussing a streetcar system for the Queen City’s urban core a few years ago after viewing the success of the system in Portland. Since that system opened in 2001, residential development has boomed along the route through Portland’s Pearl District, once an area of dilapidated buildings similar to Over-the-Rhine.

Portland leaders note that $2.28 billion in new development has occurred within a two-block radius of its streetcar system, including more than 7,200 new housing units and 4.6 million square feet of new business space. About 55 percent of all new development in Portland’s downtown during the past decade has occurred within one block of the streetcar route.

In the Pearl District, an initial city investment of $57 million yielded $1.6 billion in development. It included 5,200 new housing units that brought in about 10,000 new residents along with 21,000 jobs and $1 million in new retail.

Cincinnati officials hope to replicate Portland’s success here.

“Sure, the streetcar is a risk, but it’s a calculated risk that’s been proven right in other cities,” Bortz says.

In contrast, he says, talk about “investment in neighborhood business districts” is vague and sounds good but lacks details.

Smitherman said the promised economic windfall from other big construction projects in recent years — such as building the Reds and Bengals stadiums and expanding the convention center — never lived up to their hype.

“They don’t have a history of being accurate with their predictions,” he says. “That’s why the county has such a hole in its budget. The sales tax projections pushed by (Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff) Berding and others didn’t come through, and now we have to find the money someplace else.”

A better model of economic development would be one that doesn’t displace residents in the process, Smitherman adds.

“Our neighborhoods in the African-American community and the Appalachian community are suffering from a lack of investment that isn’t tied to gentrification,” he says. “They need to come in and invest in projects and infrastructure without moving the people already there.”

Meanwhile, streetcar supporters say the proposed charter amendment is worded too broadly and would jeopardize any type of rail project, including a possible regional light rail system for commuters or making improvements to Amtrak service now offered at Union Terminal.

“This is one of the problems with government by referendum,” Bortz says. “When an issue has many layers, we elect people on our behalf to study them thoroughly and make informed decisions.”

Here is the exact wording of the proposed amendment:
Be it resolved by the people of the City of Cincinnati that a new Article XVI of the Charter is hereby added as follows: The City, and its various Boards and Commissions, may not spend any monies for right-of-way acquisition or construction of improvements for passenger rail transportation (e.g., a trolley or streetcar) within the city limits without first submitting the question of approval of such expenditure to a vote of the electorate of the City and receiving a majority affirmative vote for the same.

Petition organizers say Bortz and others are trying to scare the public by tying the streetcar project with potential light rail proposals in an attempt to garner support for stopping the charter amendment.

“They know that any light rail proposal in the future must go before voters anyway, with or without this amendment,” Smitherman says. “I support light rail personally, but it should go before voters whenever there is a project that’s ready. They’re trying to frighten the light rail people. It’s a sham, and it’s underhanded.”

Smitherman — himself a former city councilman — said the mayor and City Council have been remiss in allowing Bortz to head the economic development committee. Because Bortz also works for Towne Properties, he says, the arrangement constitutes a conflict of interest.

“We certainly have the appearance of a conflict of interest and, in this case, it’s an actual conflict,” Smitherman says. “He should recuse himself from all economic development issues that might impact his company.”

The allegation angers Bortz, who sharply denies there’s any conflict. The streetcar project has the preliminary approval of the mayor, city manager and six City Council members besides himself.

Asked if Towne Properties owned any land along the proposed streetcar route, Bortz replies, “I think, yes, an apartment building like Garfield Place or The Gramercy, but those are in partnership with the city. I think the city actually owns them.”

Bortz believes the expertise gleaned from his family business is an asset to the city’s decision-making on economic development issues.

“Knowledge of a subject should preclude you from being involved with that subject?” he says. “That makes no sense.”

Bortz also notes that the streetcar project originally was pushed by transit advocates and that he’s never been directly involved in city discussions about the streetcar route, which was recommended by consultants and city staffers.

“Mr. Smitherman should be focusing on the specific merits of public transportation and economic development and not engage in personal attacks because I happen to be on the other side,” Bortz says.

“It’s certainly unprofessional, and it also suggests the arguments he makes are too weak to stand on their own.”

Smitherman stands by his assertion, adding that the streetcar proposal is a “pet project” that lacks broad support among the public.

“The problem is, there’s only one checkbook and we all put our tax dollars in that bucket,” he says. “When these business decisions are made, these entities need to reach out to organizations and to the people and try to develop a consensus before they spend our money.

“The average citizen, when he or she looks at streetcars closely, will reject it.”



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