Here they go again.
Just as Far Right conservatives in Congress created a crisis over the federal debt ceiling so they could advance their true goal of nibbling away at Social Security and Medicare, so are fringe factions closer to home using a backdoor maneuver to block Cincinnati’s mass transit options for the next decade or more.
If you listen to the groups collecting signatures to place a proposed charter amendment on the November ballot, all they’re trying to accomplish is stopping the city’s planned $95 million streetcar system.
The amendment is being pushed by the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and the NAACP’s local chapter, the same groups that placed another amendment on the ballot in 2009. That effort sought to require a public vote before taxpayer money was used for any rail-related project within Cincinnati. After a hard-fought campaign, voters rejected the amendment, 56 percent to 44 percent.
This time around, the groups are lobbying for a far more restrictive measure, one that would prevent even private investment in any type of passenger rail systems — not just streetcars but also commuter rail and even the hillside trams known as inclines — until Dec. 31, 2020.
In short, it’s overreaching and short-sightedness taken to an absurd extreme.
If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the wording being used on petitions.
The proposed amendment’s first section states: The City shall not spend or appropriate any money on the design, engineering, construction or operation of a Streetcar System, or any portion thereof. Further, the City shall not incur any indebtedness or contractual obligations for the purpose of financing, designing, engineering, construction or operating of a Streetcar System, or any portion thereof.
The phrasing means city officials would be prohibited from spending money on anything related to preparing any type of rail transit. Further, it restricts the city from accepting federal grants for such projects, along with entering into public-private partnerships or even accepting private investment, should some benefactor decide to pick up the project’s entire tab. Incredible.
The proposed amendment’s second section states: This Amendment applies from the date it is certified to the Charter, and will continue in effect until Dec. 31, 2020. This Amendment will have no force or effect after Dec.
As succinctly put by Cincinnatians for Progress, the pro-streetcar group that opposes the amendment, the arbitrary 10-year ban on preparation is designed to force new transit planning to start from square one in 2021. Because permanent infrastructure requires many years to develop, this wording would guarantee Cincinnati sees no rail-based transit for a generation.
The proposed amendment’s third section states: For purposes of this Amendment, (i) the term “Streetcar System” means a system of passenger vehicles operated on rails constructed primarily in existing public rights of way, (ii) the term “City” includes without limitation the City, the Manager, the Mayor, the Council, and the City’s various boards, commissions, agencies and departments and (iii) the term “money” means any money from any source whatsoever.
Any. Source. Whatsoever.
Because of the broad definition, all types of passenger rail that use Cincinnati streets or rights-of-way would be prohibited. That means any eventual plans for commuter rail lines along the Eastern Corridor or to places like Sharonville and West Chester would be barred.
Moreover, it makes it virtually impossible to revive the sort of light rail system that once was envisioned running from Mason southward through Cincinnati and on to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Hebron, like the one included in the 2001 “Metro Moves” plan.
In other words, the amendment would go a long way toward killing regional rail projects, as well.
People who have been collecting signatures on behalf of COAST and the NAACP have been purposefully underplaying the amendment’s impact, telling residents it just affects the streetcar project. Baloney.
It’s not a surprise that COAST — which is Libertarian to the extreme, dislikes government involvement in most sectors of society and hates mass transit — would try to pull the wool over voters’ eyes. One COAST leader, Anderson Township resident Chris Finney, is a crackerjack attorney who’s made a lucrative career from suing governments and promoting ultra-conservative legislation. Make no doubt, the wording in the proposed amendment isn’t a mistake; it’s there for a reason and COAST realizes its full impact.
The real question is why would Christopher Smitherman and Michelle Edwards of the local NAACP go along with such a far-reaching initiative?
Do they honestly think the predominantly African-American residents of poor, inner-city neighborhoods like Avondale and Evanston wouldn’t be well-served by having cheap transportation to job centers in Mason and Northern Kentucky? And just what do you think a gallon of gasoline will be selling for on Dec. 31, 2020?
Let’s make it clear — it’s not cheap to drive, no matter what type of vehicle you might own. According to figures complied by the Automobile Association of America (AAA), the total average cost of driving a car during a single year is $9,859, or 49.3 cents per mile. The figure includes costs such as gas, maintenance and tires, along with insurance, license, registration and taxes.
And if you’re driving a sport utility vehicle (SUV), it costs $12,598 annually, or 63 cents per mile. If you’re driving a minivan, it costs $10,716 annually, or 53.6 cents per mile.
One of the reasons groups like COAST say they dislike mass transit is that it is publicly subsidized. But highways and airports also are heavily subsidized, it’s just not as apparent to the casual observer.
A 2002 analysis by the Ohio Association of Rail Passengers found that 54 percent ($32.3 billion) of the U.S. Transportation Department’s funding was allocated for highways, 23 percent ($14 billion) was allocated for airports and less that 10 percent ($5 billion) went toward mass transit.
Also, user fees only account for about 60 percent of highway spending by all levels of government; the rest comes from non-users.
In its analysis, the association states, “As has been noted by well known conservative Paul Weyrich, of the Free Congress Foundation, the current transportation system, dominated by highway and air transportation, is by no means a free market outcome. Rather it is the result of massive and sustained government intervention on behalf of these two modes.”
So, even if you’re opposed to Cincinnati’s current streetcar project, anyone with an eye toward the future should quickly reject the charter amendment that likely will be put on the November ballot. It could have consequences that will scar the city and its development potential for years to come.
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