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Streetcar’s No. 1 Problem: Obstructionism

By German Lopez · April 24th, 2013 · Commentary
commentary 2013-04-24

Step one: Create problems for Cincinnati’s streetcar project. Step two: Blame the problems on the streetcar project. Step three: Political profit.

That has been the path taken by opponents of Cincinnati’s streetcar project since its inception. With the announcement from the city manager’s office that the streetcar is $17.4 million in the red, it’s officially paid off.

In simple terms, the consistent obstructionism has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Streetcar opponents have been so worried about the project’s financial feasibility that they’ve hindered it at every point, effectively delaying the project and occasionally costing it funding.

Opponents of the streetcar have not been shy in their opposition. Ever since the project was announced, independent City Councilman Chris Smitherman and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) have used their political and legal clout to hamstring the project.

In 2009 and 2011, that opposition culminated in two failed referendum efforts. But as the city manager’s most recent memo says, these referendum efforts only made the project more expensive by forcing costly delays.

For most people, even one defeat at the ballot box would be a sign to stop. For the anti-streetcar gang, the defeats prompted other methods.

To this day, the biggest problem facing the streetcar is still Gov. John Kasich’s decision in 2011 to pull $52 million from the project, even though the funds were federal money that was already promised to the streetcar and its supporters by former Gov. Ted Strickland.

How do you think the streetcar would be doing today if it had an extra $52 million? Would a $17.4 million budget gap be an issue?

Yet opponents, who are local groups and individuals that are supposed to represent Cincinnati’s best interests, were quick to celebrate Kasich’s 2011 decision to pull money away from the city.

Immediately following the announcement, COAST posted a blog enthusiastically titled, “Please thank Governor Kasich for cutting streetcar funding!” The blog then thanked Kasich in 10 different languages.

For COAST, the tactics have become a trend. Last year, when Cincinnati was trying to rework its sale of the Blue Ash Airport to unlock funding for the streetcar and neighborhood programs, COAST opposed the reworked deal in court.

The organization launched its attacks through the thin veil of legal technicalities in the Blue Ash City Charter, but Blue Ash City Solicitor Mark Vander Laan told CityBeat COAST’s lawsuit had no legal standing. Instead, he said COAST was using the deal as a way to disrupt the streetcar: “They may have a complaint about the streetcar, but that’s not the city of Blue Ash’s issue at all. We don’t think it’s even an appropriate basis to challenge this.”

Indeed, Blue Ash had no problems with the reworked deal, and its city council agreed to Cincinnati’s plans in a 6-1 vote.

But the obstructionism continued, helping lead to the streetcar’s problems today. The most recent drama has focused on construction bids, which came $26 million to $43 million over budget. 

But there’s another telling number behind the construction bids: Only three developers responded to the city’s request for proposals (RFP). That could suggest one of two things: Either the RFP deal was poorly laid out or, for whatever reason, developers did not want to take part in Cincinnati’s streetcar project. 

One reason developers may have been cautious of the project is the consistent obstruction the streetcar has faced. If developers have seen and heard the anti-streetcar tone from some of Cincinnati’s major political players, why would they risk investment? There are dozens of other cities looking for developers to complete major projects. Why commit to the one project that has already been on the ballot twice and may be threatened again in an upcoming mayoral race?

Now, streetcar opponents are using all these problems to create even more perceived issues. The latest attacks link the streetcar’s budget gap to cops and firefighters being laid off to balance the city’s operating budget. But streetcar funds come from the capital budget, which can’t be used to balance the operating budget because of traditional and legal constraints.

Of course, this kind of disaster is probably what streetcar opponents want. For them, witnessing the streetcar’s demise is the best outcome. For everyone else, the obstructionist efforts should prove these groups lack credibility when they attempt to act genuinely concerned over recent issues.

CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: glopez@citybeat.com or @germanrlopez



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