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Moving the Transit Conversation

By John Fox · January 24th, 2007 · Editorial

Peeking inside The Enquirer's well-done special section Sunday on the Ohio River flood of 1937, I was drawn to the editorial, "Streetcars: Is the desire there?" It followed up on a recent front-page Enquirer story about the city of Cincinnati's funding of a study regarding a possible downtown streetcar project.

The first thing I noticed, of course, was Jim Borgman's funny-as-usual cartoon that depicted "Cincy Track Record" crashing into and derailing the streetcar proposal. As we all know, this city and region has a long history of resisting progressive ideas, and rail transit plans have been discussed (and resisted) for years now.

As I waded into the editorial, however, I was immediately struck with the editorial board's tone that discussions about this transit proposal were something new. "So it's time for us to get the conversation started, especially before the 'experts' all weigh in," the third paragraph began. "We invite you to consider the following observations, then talk to us -- and each other -- about the streetcar issue."

Dudes, where have you been? We've been talking to each other about public transit, light rail, streetcars and a lot other things for many years now. We know that Cincinnati is one of the few major U.S. cities not to embrace these concepts. Pardon the pun, but we're totally on board.

The rest of the editorial explains the details that will be debated about any streetcar plan, from cost to ridership to economic spin-off. It quotes several interested officials, including rail advocate John Schneider, former transportation advisor at Downtown Cincinnati Inc.

And it ends with a call to arms that "a new streetcar loop would require broad buy-in across this region. That's why it is important that the discussion be as broad, thorough and reasoned as possible. Join us."

I immediately read the editorial again, thinking that I must have missed something the first time around. Surely (I thought to myself) The Enquirer editorial board, which includes the publisher and the editor, doesn't actually believe that a communitywide conversation about streetcars in particular and public rail transit in general hasn't already been going for years now.

Yes, this specific downtown streetcar study had been commissioned recently, but it's not all that different from previous studies, proposals, ballot initiatives and hair-brained schemes. Cincinnatians -- especially those of us who consider ourselves urbanites -- have been working on transit concepts for a while now.

And then it dawned on me: Maybe the Enquirer folks don't know this. Maybe they actually think that city residents have been waiting around for the paper to suggest a "community conversation" (as the small title above the headline calls it) before we educate ourselves about public transportation.

I've been chuckling to myself for the past few days about the disconnect and The Enquirer's self-importance. Curious, I spent about an hour searching the CityBeat Web site for our coverage of rail transit and related topics, and I turned up a lot.

About a year ago, Schneider himself wrote an essay for CityBeat on how cities like Portland, Ore. plan successful pedestrian- and transit-friendly urban neighborhoods that attract tons of young professionals. We ran "A City That Works" as the cover story on Feb. 15, 2006.

"Portland is turning the urban transportation model on its head," Schneider wrote. "As gas prices rise and congestion increases, leaders there are betting Portlanders will increasingly value access -- being able to fulfill their needs close to home -- just as much as they now value mobility. ... You'll find the streetcar and a MAX light rail train in only one-third of Portland's neighborhoods, and only one of the city's four rail lines is more than eight years old. But in several of Portland's old and new neighborhoods, a family can live well with fewer cars -- or perhaps with no car at all."

Schneider is known for many accomplishments, but he's widely recognized for two ongoing roles -- as the area's No. 1 rail transit advocate (who ran the unsuccessful 2002 campaign to raise the Hamilton County sales tax to fund a comprehensive light rail system) and as the guy who takes small groups to Portland a few times a year to see its rail system first-hand.

He's been taking Cincinnatians to Portland for five years now, with more than 250 people -- politicians, business owners, media types, ordinary citizens -- seeing how the city deals with these issues. They then come home and discuss their experiences with others, moving the conversation along.

A CityBeat story from May 31, 2001, "Getting There," interviewed several people who accompanied Schneider on an early Portland trip and got their first taste of how rail transit can help change a city.

Paul Steman, a retired services director for the city of Silverton, said he'd been concerned about a rail system slowing traffic on major roads but came away impressed with the openness and cleanliness of Portland's trains as well as shoppers using light rail to access a wide variety of retail choices.

Sonya McDonnell, who at the time owned Kaldi's in Over-the-Rhine, worried about the disruption a rail project would cause along Main Street but came back convinced that rail could mix well with cars and pedestrians.

Yes, Schneider is the same expert whom The Enquirer quotes in its "here's a new concept: streetcars" editorial. Maybe the paper should have been paying attention to him before last Sunday.

By the way, Schneider's next trip to Portland is in mid-February. CityBeat plans to report on that one, too.

Speaking of CityBeat coverage, let's take a quick train ride down memory lane:

· After 11 years of working to bring streetcars back to Cincinnati, Cincinnati Street Railway Inc. announced in 1998 a partnership with the city's Economic Development Department to work out a budget for a rail feasibility study. (See "Trolley Proposal Gets on Track," issue of March 12, 1998.) Andi Udris, then-economic development director, said the study would cost roughly $200,000.

According to the story, the proposed streetcar plan would link Cincinnati's riverfront, Over-the-Rhine's Main Street entertainment district and the Museum Center at Union Terminal.

· When that study didn't work out, a broader coalition came together in 2000 to fund a $625,000 study of what public transportation should be used to move people around the riverfront and link downtown Cincinnati, Newport and Covington. (See "Taking It to the Streets," issue of June 1, 2000.)

David Fritze of Cincinnati Street Railway Inc. proposed to the coalition a 12-mile, 43-stop streetcar loop to connect many of the riverfront points served by the Southbank Shuttle but also reach west to Union Terminal and north to Over-the-Rhine.

Money quote: "Reaction from area civic and government leaders has been lukewarm, Fritze said. Many don't take the idea seriously. Others like it but don't see it as feasible. And a minority believe streetcars make sense."

· A profile of City Councilman Jim Tarbell, chair of council's then-new arts committee, touched on his dream of a streetcar line to connect many of downtown's arts venues as well as Findlay Market and new Over-the-Rhine condos. (See "Jim Tarbell, Arts Czar," issue of Nov. 29, 2001.)

"In Tarbell's vision, Cincinnati's historical past and future development come crashing together," the article said. "All it takes is a sliver of the commitment the city recently gave for building two new stadiums."

· In 2002, CityBeat was the first local media outlet to cover an obscure college professor, Richard Florida, and his concept of the "creative class" choosing to live in cool cities like Portland and Austin instead of non-cool cities like, well, Cincinnati. (See "Cool Is Money," issue of June 20, 2002.)

Speaking at a UC panel discussion on economic development, Florida explained that innovative public transit helped cities create buzz among young people who can live and work anywhere they want.

"In short," the article reported, "the Tristate needs to ask itself a question or two: Does it want Cincinnati to be its cultural center, where people live, walk and work, like in Portland, Ore.? Or does the Tristate want to be the next Detroit, a gaping hole surrounded by people who refuse to say they live in Detroit?

"There are clear paths to both destinies. Portland does it right with planning and zoning, said Kathy Schwab, residential development advisor for the non-profit group Downtown Cincinnati Inc. Portland leaders, with their state's help, have invested heavily in their urban center via light rail combined with limits on poorly planned, car-driven development."

· What began in 2000 as a plan to revamp Queen City Metro, the city's bus system, grew into MetroMoves two years later, and the comprehensive, 30-year vision for the Tristate's public transportation network was on the fall ballot. (See "No Free Ride," issue of Aug. 29, 2002.) MetroMoves became a $4.2 billion plan to add five light rail lines, two streetcar lines, 20 neighborhood shuttles and 30 bus transfer centers.

· CityBeat endorsed Issue 7 in our 2002 pre-election issue, saying "MetroMoves makes sense on every level imaginable." (See "Dismantling the Fear Factory," issue of Oct. 24, 2002.) If county taxpayers saw the worth of a comprehensive rail transit system, we argued, 75 percent of the construction costs would be paid by federal and state governments, with much of the actual sales taxes paid for by non-county residents.

"Light rail -- the most costly part of this plan -- is a scary proposition for many local folks," we said. "It seems a revolutionary idea, yet the reality is that, as usual, Cincinnati lags behind other cities in introducing it. And not just glitzy cities like San Francisco and San Diego, but real work-a-day cities like St. Louis, Dallas and Portland, Ore. ...

"If you're afraid that Cincinnati doesn't deserve a progressive, comprehensive transit system, can't handle it and will likely only screw it up, well, you're probably in the majority. But Issue 7 is the time and the place to face our fear of the future and open ourselves to possibilities as a community."

Issue 7 got killed on Election Day.

· A story on New Urbanism reported on the debate over big box retail construction in Oakley and discussed progressive urban design ideas in cities like Denver and Portland. (See "Neighborhood or a Node," issue of Nov. 27, 2002).

The story highlighted Stapleton, a huge New Urbanist community being developed from Denver's old airport that was a creative attempt to merge big retail with walkable neighborhoods. The developer cut down on construction of parking garages in favor of adding good mass transit.

· Back in 2003, before he twice ran for city council, Nick Spencer helped found a "creative class"-centric organization called Cincinnati Tomorrow (now known as Cincinnati Advance). He came up with a dream plan of what Cincinnati could do to better attract and retain young professionals. (See "A Creative City," issue of Feb. 26, 2003.)

The group's "Creative City Plan" borrowed heavily from Richard Florida's concepts for adding the kind of amenities that would make Cincinnati a cooler place, including playing local music on outdoor speakers in public spaces, a late-night bus to connect the city's entertainment venues and a streetcar system for downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

· Mark Mallory and David Pepper discussed public transit positions during their mayoral campaign in 2005, with both candidates agreeing that an improved transportation system could help spur economic growth in Cincinnati. (See "Bright Flight, Small City," issue of Aug. 31, 2005.)

In fact, Pepper said his "favorite new idea is creating what he calls a '21st century transportation system' connecting The Banks through Over-the-Rhine and maybe uptown to Mount Auburn and Clifton. It might look like a trolley system or a free bus like the one serving Denver's 16th Street Mall."

See what I mean? We've been talking about public transit issues -- in many ways, in public and private realms and in light rail, streetcar, bus and other forms -- for a long time now. That train has left the station.

I know The Enquirer wrote the editorial in part to give itself credit for breaking the front-page story about the city's streetcar study. My editorial is written in part to remind you that CityBeat has been covering these issues for 10 years.

The conversation has been going and will continue to go, and taking credit is beside the point. Join The Enquirer's conversation? Why don't they join ours?

Contact john fox: jfox(at)citybeat.com


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