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Let's Not Make Another Mistake

By Joe Wessels · May 20th, 2009 · Wessels


Let’s stop being a town of shoulda, woulda, coulda.

With Cincinnati City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz’s announcement May 19 that she no longer supports the city’s streetcar initiative, she joins Republican colleague Chris Monzel, who never liked the idea from the beginning. And that stinks.

We’re a town full of treasures built or founded or opened around 100 years ago during a time when Cincinnati was a moving and shaking metropolis. Literally. We were a little more progressive then than we seem to be today.

I won’t drone on about how we got that way — local historian Dan Hurley did a wonderful column about the changes a few years ago in The Cincinnati Post (oh, wait, it’s gone). And I don’t begrudge Ghiz’s reasoning — she’s been concerned about our city’s explosive violent crime rate. But I think this decision might be a bit like putting the trolley car before the horse.

So much of our thinking has focused on backloaded decision-making. In other words, what to do after the proverbial shit hits the fan.

“Build a bigger jail!” seems to be a popular refrain locally. Funding public safety has been en vogue in many municipalities since the early 1980s. If the Cincinnati Police Department — so well funded that department leadership blushes privately — could somehow channel funds to a streetcar line through one of the city’s most notoriously crime-infested neighborhoods, it would probably be built tomorrow.

Ghiz says Cincinnati’s tightening budget funds should be spent on reducing crime. Well, a streetcar line could help there. Report after report and study after study shows that streetcars promote economic development, which in turn leads to lower crime. See, they go hand in hand.

We need to take the first step. And a route connecting downtown to Clifton and the University of Cincinnati — the area’s two biggest employment centers — makes so much sense you’d have to be crazy to think any politician is behind it. But local political leaders are in favor, in droves, starting with Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory. And it’s not just because gas prices are creeping back up.

My favorite no-to-everything group, COAST (which I swear stands for the Coalition Opposed to Any Sustainable Transportation), has come out strong against the streetcar plan. It’s paired up with the local NAACP chapter — the strangest bedfellows ever — and keeps referring to the streetcar as a “trolley,” as if to mock its true purpose.

What you won’t hear from these opponents is how streetcar lines have spurred economic development, some more than others, in the U.S. cities that have introduced them in recent years. Studies done here say the downtown-to-UC line has the potential to help one of the city’s most historic and economically hardest-hit neighborhoods, Over-the- Rhine.

Sometimes you have to spend a little to make a little. Even the stingiest penny-pincher knows that.

If COAST and the NAACP are successful in getting the streetcar referendum on the ballot this fall and filling the weeks and months ahead of it with mis-information and if the referendum passes, we might once again blow a truly remarkable opportunity. With the failure of the 2002 light rail tax levy, it could be a very long time before local politicians try for something this bold again.

And once again we’ll be stuck. An old town that used to say “yes” will say “no” again and miss a chance to move forward, to be cool, to plan for what the youngest generations now will want in the future. And away they’ll go to cooler cities, and our city will flounder.

There are so many instances in our past when we could have but didn’t: an unfinished subway, cutting up the West End with I-75, taking out the inclines, ripping up the streetcars, putting two overpriced stadiums next to each other when we could have given Over-the-Rhine a boost.

Just about all of these mistakes were transportation-related. Let’s not add to the list and let future generations do the same shoulda, woulda, coulda.

CONTACT JOE WESSELS: joe@joewessels.net



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