In all likelihood, Cincinnati residents this fall might once again be casting their votes on a streetcar-related ballot item.
The same groups that tried — and failed — to block the city’s planned $128 million streetcar system through a ballot issue in November 2009 are busy collecting signatures on a petition for another try.
Back then, the effort was known as Issue 9. If approved, it would’ve required a public vote before taxpayer money was used for any rail-related project, not just the streetcar. The groups behind that effort, the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and the NAACP’s local chapter, had said they specifically crafted the broadly written wording in case city officials tried to rename the streetcar project and call it something else to skirt the restriction on a technicality.
No matter: Voters soundly rejected the issue, 56 percent to 44 percent.
Now, COAST and the NAACP are trying again. This time, they’re joined by the police and firefighters unions, who are under the mistaken impression that canceling the project might somehow prevent possible future layoffs. (We’ll get to why that’s not true in a moment.)
During this go-around, COAST and the NAACP are theorizing that some voters might have opposed Issue 9 because although they dislike streetcars, they favor other types of potential rail projects — like light rail or commuter rail — and didn’t want to jeopardize them should such a regional plan ever be introduced.
The pro-Issue 9 yard signs back then featured an image of a streetcar blocked by a red circle and line over the image. It included the words, “Yes on Issue 9, Stop the Streetcar.”
That seems pretty clear to me. I don’t think any voters were confused about the issue’s intent.
But the groups want another bite at the apple, so they’ve changed tactics this time.
If COAST and the NAACP collect enough signatures, the next ballot issue would impose an outright ban on spending any money on “a system of passenger vehicles operated on rails constructed primarily in existing public rights of way” until Dec. The ban would affect any source of funding regardless if it was federal, state, local or privately financed by a generous benefactor. (“No sir, Mr. Clooney, we simply cannot accept your check for $200 million. Thanks, but no thanks.”)
Moreover, many of the petition circulators this time — like NAACP President Christopher Smitherman and some neighborhood activists — are going around stating some variation of, “I’m not against the streetcar, I’m just against it right now because we have a budget crisis.”
What crap, part deux.
Smitherman made his feelings clear during the 2009 campaign, when he went around Cincinnati derisively calling the project a “choo choo train” in order to make it look bad. The lame insult only succeeded in making Smitherman appear lacking in serious thought.
Meanwhile, COAST has never seen a public transit project that it hasn’t called a “boondoggle.” It’s fundamentally opposed to the use of taxpayer money for mass transit, believing all such projects are money pits despite what our own economic feasibility studies and experiences in other cities might tell us. Their pleas that the restrictions are just for this project and are only temporary ring hollow. These same interest groups will always find a reason to oppose streetcars.
The streetcar’s primary purpose is as an economic development tool, spurring investment in vacant and dilapidated properties along its route. Cincinnati’s proposed 4.9-mile loop would travel from downtown’s riverfront north through Over-the-Rhine and into the uptown area near the University of Cincinnati. Studies have indicated the local streetcar system would spark nearly $1.4 billion in new development. That means it would produce – when adjusted in today's value — up to $2.70 in economic activity for every $1 invested.
The police and firefighters unions recently have hopped on board COAST’s crazy train because they think money used for the project could instead be used to bolster their departments’ budgets.
Of the $114 million or so allocated toward the project so far, $50 million comes from state and federal transportation grants that cannot be used for other purposes. The remaining amount — $64 million in council-approved bonds — can only be used for construction projects, not operating costs like paying for the salaries of police and firefighters.
Whenever someone points out those facts to streetcar opponents, however, they change their argument. The real reason they’re against the project, then they insist, is because they’re worried that City Council might dip into the General Fund to pay for yearly operating costs for the system.
Based on a peer review by transit agencies in other cities that have similar systems, Cincinnati’s annual operating cost is estimated at about $3.4 million, according to a city spokeswoman.
Current estimates indicate the system’s downtown and Over-the-Rhine portion would attract about 4,600 riders each weekday. Operating costs likely would be covered by fares along with some combination of money generated by naming rights, sponsorships, advertising, casino proceeds and parking meters.
City Council already approved a motion allocating 25 percent of revenues generated by the planned Cincinnati casino once it opens — or between $3 million and $5 million annually — to operate the system. Obviously, council can tinker with that amount over time, raising or lowering it as circumstances dictate.
Further, streetcar opponents believe some of the incidental costs associated with the project — such as moving utilities along the route — are underestimated. Their concerns seemed to get a boost when Duke Energy announced its calculations were about $16 million higher than the city’s.
City officials, though, say they aren’t worried about the discrepancy. Duke’s numbers are inflated and the difference can be negotiated, they add.
“The city has done its due diligence with respect to utility relocation and does not believe utility relocation costs will meet Duke’s original estimate,” a city spokeswoman said. “Duke has been supportive of this project from the beginning, and we would expect that to continue.”
The end result is COAST and the NAACP are purposely exploiting misinformation and misperceptions about the project in a divisive manner that will linger long after the ballot issue is decided one way or another. What a disgraceful legacy.
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