After signing a utility relocation agreement with Duke Energy on Feb. 1, Cincinnati City Manager Milton Dohoney, Jr. declared, “The streetcar is happening.”
Predictably, the project plunged once more into crisis two weeks later when track construction bids exceeded city estimates by $26-$43 million.
The city in December entered into a $20 million contract with Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, the Spanish railroad car manufacturer better known as CAF, which will begin fabricating five streetcars in March or April.
Cincinnati will soon own streetcars whether or not it has track on which to operate them. In a best-case scenario, this latest wrinkle will be resolved quickly and the streetcars will begin operation between Findlay Market and The Banks in late 2015 or early 2016. In a worst-case scenario, the streetcars might stay parked at CAF USA’s assembly and testing facility in Elmiyra, N.Y., since the streetcar barn planned a block north of Findlay Market is part of the contentious track contract.
In the event that the entire project is cancelled, Cincinnati will have no difficulty selling its streetcars, as at least a dozen cities around the U.S. are planning new lines. But Cincinnati’s project has already survived countless attempts to stop it, including two ballot challenges and the yanking of a $52 million grant by Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Most likely, the streetcars soon to take shape in Zaragoza, Spain, will make their way to CAF USA in 2014 (“Made in the USA” stipulations require 60 percent fabrication in the U.S.), then arrive in Cincinnati on schedule, ending a more than 60-year period in which no rail-based public transportation existed here.
The new CAF streetcars will bear no more resemblance to those of the defunct Cincinnati Street Railway than the first telephones and black-and-white TVs do to today’s smartphones and flat screens. For starters, today’s streetcars are air conditioned, board level with the curb and accept payment by credit card. But the most profound difference — and the primary reason why the new streetcar system’s story will differ from the old — is its organizational and financial underpinning.
The new line, and presumably any expansions of it, will be built by the city of Cincinnati and operated by Metro.
Eighty-five million dollars of the project’s $125 million construction cost will be paid by the city (the project has been awarded three federal grants totaling $39.9 million) and its ongoing operations subsidy will be paid directly by the city. By contrast, the Cincinnati Street Railway, like the streetcar networks that appeared in every American city in the late 1800s, was a private enterprise that financed its construction by the sale of stock and bonds. Its franchise agreement granted it the right to monopolize all public transportation within the city’s municipal boundaries in exchange for payment of exceptionally high taxes.
Street railway franchises quickly became important sources of income for Cincinnati and all other American cities, meaning city governments were reluctant to relax franchise stipulations when circumstances changed, even if service to their own citizens suffered. The heyday of profitable public transportation in the U.S. lasted between 1890 and the mid-1920s, when the contemporaneous arrival of middle class automobile ownership, taxis and upstart bus companies caused ridership to fall for the first time.
Decreasing ridership made public takeover scenarios a regular topic of conversation in every American city. Public ownership promised lower fares and better service, proponents argued, because a non-profit transit company would be tax exempt and serve the public’s interest, not stockholders. Other criticisms of private ownership pointed to company management, which was often accused of embezzling streetcar revenue or illegally timing personal stock purchases and sales with those of the company.
Meanwhile, diesel buses were seen as a savior for private ownership. Postwar transitions to rubber-tired vehicles operating on publicly financed roads meant transit companies could divest themselves of the ongoing maintenance of the streetcar networks they built decades earlier, partially or completely retire debt with the sale of streetcar assets and use the occasion to renegotiate their franchises. Profitable transit companies could also continue paying fees to their respective cities.
In Cincinnati, the 100-plus mile network built by Cincinnati Street Railway, which would cost billions to fully reconstruct today, was paved over in a futile attempt to keep private ownership solvent. The full transition to buses caused the immediate drop in passengers that management expected, but government at all levels increased its spending for automobile infrastructure, meaning bus ridership continued to slide. Yearly service cutbacks kept the Cincinnati Transit Company, the CSR’s all-bus successor, nominally profitable until SORTA bought its assets and established Queen City Metro in 1973.
Lost with the vintage streetcar tracks were those characteristics that enable rail-based transit to greater ridership than buses, especially its fixed guide path. The trumpeted advantage of buses oft-heard since their 1920s introduction — their ability to drive around obstructions and change routes to follow population shifts — is, in fact, their critical weakness. TV ad campaigns and bus maps downloadable to smartphones are no substitute for the 24-hour advertisement rail embedded in city streets gives to public transportation.
For the past 40 years, local politicians have succeeded in scuttling attempts to improve bus service and build rail transit lines by positioning public transportation as an object free from the city’s system of systems.
Cincinnati’s new streetcar line challenges that narrative because it acknowledges that high quality public transportation builds economic and cultural value that exceeds its capital cost or annual subsidy. The citizens of New York City, San Francisco and other great cities know this. Cincinnati appears to finally understand, and should the plan survive this latest hurdle, the arrival of five Spanish-made streetcars two years from now might mark the moment when that narrative is decisively reversed. ©