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Top 10 Misrepresentations of the Cincinnati Streetcar Project

By German Lopez · July 10th, 2013 · Cover Story
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With new funding and accountability measures in place, Cincinnati’s streetcar project is back on track following months of uncertainty and years of obstructionism — a testament to how determined city officials are to complete the project.

The funding measures approved by City Council on June 26 put the project’s estimated cost at about $148 million, but that’s including $15 million the city claims it will get back if courts decide Duke Energy must pay for relocating utility lines to accommodate for streetcar tracks. Excluding that $15 million, the project is priced at about $133 million.

Along with the funding vote, council approved accountability measures that will require the city manager to publicly update City Council with a timeline of key milestones, performance measures, an operating plan, staffing assessments and monthly progress reports. 

For City Council, the accountability measures provide some political cover and greater certainty that the project is being properly managed. For the public, the measures are supposed to restore public faith in the project, which has been mired in obstructionism and controversy since its inception.

“I will vote today to continue the streetcar project because we need to continue moving Cincinnati forward,” explained Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls prior to the council vote. “At the same time, while I remain a supporter, it is with the recognition that it is time for a reboot on the project to instill public confidence in its management.”

Given that it’s an election year, it might seem simultaneously strange and remarkable that City Council is pushing ahead with a project that’s been engulfed in controversy. For supporters, it’s a sign that the city is truly moving forward with its recent economic and development momentum. Opponents will continue calling the project a relentless pursuit of wrongheaded policies they claim will bankrupt the city.

It’s been more than five years since the project was approved by City Council, and voters have supported it through two conservative-led efforts to shut it down. The debate has gotten ugly over the years, from politicians insinuating that streetcar funding could be used to avoid layoffs to talk-radio hosts disrespectfully mocking the entire concept and its supporters. 

The problem is that most anti-streetcar talking points are perpetuated without proper context, but they’ve still been effective in rallying a libertarian-style argument against government spending, despite the potential benefits.  

However unreasonable, city leaders appear to have saved the project from the negativity. But the myths remain part of the public discourse. With this in mind — and with the project back on budget — CityBeat put together the top 10 misrepresentations of the streetcar and background on who started and continues facilitating them.

Misrepresentation No. 10: The streetcar will be full of scary black guys with guns.

When we say the streetcar debate has gotten ugly, we’re not just talking about politicians using the project for political gain, although there’s been plenty of that. 

Local conservative group Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) has long been known for tasteless takes on local issues, and two years ago its leaders seemed to have outdone themselves by circulating a doctored picture of armed black people riding a smashed-up streetcar labeled “Cincinnati trolley.” 

The photo’s message was clear: If the streetcar is built, scary black people with guns will ride it alongside you. 

The racist image eventually ended up on the Facebook page of Mark Miller, treasurer of COAST, after he was tagged by a University of Cincinnati student interning for the Hamilton County Republican Party at the time. The image remained on Miller’s Facebook wall for weeks, until CityBeat published a blog post about it.

The image’s implications were obviously wrong and abhorrent. They also shed light on the underlying anti-urban — and perhaps racist — motives behind much of the anti-streetcar faction.

Misrepresentation No. 9: The streetcar can’t go uphill.

This myth wasn’t too widely circulated, but some opponents of the streetcar project initially claimed the streetcar wouldn’t be able to go uphill — rendering it useless in a hilly city like Cincinnati. 

The claim is flat-out wrong. Although the uphill portions of the streetcar project will cost more, the streetcar will be capable of going uphill.

And Cincinnati isn’t enacting some sort of secret engineering marvel to get the streetcar to go up hills. There are already examples of cities with functioning streetcars that go uphill, most notably San Francisco.

San Francisco is a very hilly city. There’s even a Wikipedia page dedicated to its many hills, and the city, much like Cincinnati, claims to have been built on seven hills — a reference to Rome, the “City of Seven Hills.”

Yet San Francisco has one of the oldest streetcar systems in the country, going back to 1892. 

Prior to that, San Francisco mainly used cable cars, which are also capable of going uphill and today pose as a prominent tourist attraction.

If San Francisco could do it more than 120 years ago, Cincinnati can do it now.

Misrepresentation No. 8: Humans can outwalk the streetcar.

In 2011, one of the major streetcar controversies began with a claim that it will be possible to outwalk the streetcar along its path — a notion further perpetuated by The Cincinnati Enquirer, which had a reporter time himself walking the route in a considerably unscientific fact-checking exercise.

Beating a streetcar would be some impressive walking, considering the city estimates the streetcar will be able to go up to 10 to 15 miles per hour, with a 6.7 mph average.

To be sure, that’s still slower than other cities’ systems: Portland’s streetcar goes about 8 mph on average on the east side of the city, and San Francisco’s streetcar averages about 8.1 mph.

But it’s still more than twice the average walking speed of 3 mph. The average person would have to be sprinting to race the streetcar around its track.

The criticism also doesn’t take convenience into account.

It may be possible to outrun the streetcar, but how is the average person going to manage when carrying groceries or in bad weather?

So maybe Usain Bolt can do without the streetcar. But the average Cincinnatian will probably enjoy the faster, more convenient transportation it provides.

Misrepresentation No. 7: The streetcar really doesn’t go far enough.

There’s one interesting point of agreement between critics and supporters: As currently slated, the streetcar project doesn’t go far enough.

City Manager Milton Dohoney, probably the city’s top streetcar supporter, acknowledged the argument in comments to City Council earlier in the year.

“If the intent of the streetcar would only be to go from The Banks to just north of Findlay Market, then I never would have said it’s a project worth doing,” he said. “The intention has always been to connect the two major employment centers of the city and go beyond that.”

Dohoney was referring to connecting downtown with the uptown area, which includes the University of Cincinnati and nearby hospitals.

As Dohoney points out, the problem with this criticism is that the streetcar project’s intent was always to go to the uptown area. The original streetcar plans called for a five-mile route that reached the University of Cincinnati. That route was downsized to the current 3.6-mile route when Republican Gov. John Kasich, a streetcar opponent, pulled $52 million in the federal funds that former Gov. Ted Strickland had allocated to the streetcar. 

As Kasich put it when speaking to reporters during a trip to UC, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

Streetcar opponents are effectively creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: Through the governor, they shortened the streetcar track. Then they began complaining that the streetcar doesn’t go far enough.

Still, for supporters of the streetcar, the complaint only justifies expanding the streetcar to reach all corners of the city. That’s why they call the current streetcar project the first phase of a much larger vision.

Misrepresentation No. 6: Buses are just as good as streetcars.  

“We like the idea of a streetcar, but why not try a trackless trolley?” 

“Why do we need a streetcar when we have a bus system?”

Those are just some of the questions that have been voiced by streetcar opponents throughout the many council meetings on the issue.

The answer, city officials claim, lies in the permanence of streetcar tracks: When potential residents and business owners are looking to buy or lease property, having a home or shop in front of established, unmovable streetcar tracks is a lot more alluring than a bus stop that can be and often is moved.

That permanence also apparently drives up ridership numbers, if the experience of other cities is anything to go by. In Tacoma, Wash., ridership spiked when a streetcar line effectively replaced a bus line, according to a study carried out by the Sound Transit Board with the city of Seattle and King County, Wash.

“Even accounting for the slightly improved service level, the opening of rail service clearly and dramatically increased transit ridership, with data showing a 500 percent improvement,” the study read.

The study gave a few reasons for the massive increase: Streetcars are easier to get on and ride, the cars usually have more space for passengers and streetcar systems are typically capable of carrying, loading and unloading more passengers more quickly than buses.

It may not justify everything about the streetcar, but the evidence suggests trackless transportation isn’t a suitable replacement for a streetcar system.

Misrepresentation No. 5: The streetcar won’t foster economic development.

When discussing the streetcar project, city officials will almost always cite one number: the estimated three-to-one return on investment.

The estimate comes from a 2007 study conducted by HDR, a company that’s often hired by cities to advise on big projects. The study estimated the return on investment after finding major economic benefits from connecting Over-the-Rhine and downtown’s Central Business District, including travel cost savings, increased mobility for low-income individuals and economic development that would spur rising property values.

That study was then reviewed by the University of Cincinnati, which entirely supported and echoed the findings in its own follow-up assessment.

Economic projections are fairly difficult and often wrong, but the depth of HDR’s study and the support it received from UC grant much-needed credibility.

Besides, the study’s findings don’t contradict the experiences of other cities. In a 2007 letter, Charlie Hales, now mayor of Portland, Ore., touted data to demonstrate big transit projects, particularly light rail, caused significant property value increases — as high as 39 percent — near rail lines in Dallas, St. Louis, Portland and San Francisco.

In the same letter, Hales cited data that found trackless trolleys rarely resulted in economic development and mostly underwhelmed in terms of ridership, with the one notable exception of Denver.

None of that is to say that the streetcar will absolutely, surely spur massive economic development in Cincinnati. But until empirical evidence is provided for the contrary, it makes sense for city officials to rely on evidence from two respected institutions and other cities.

Misrepresentation No. 4: The streetcar hasn’t increased taxes.

This is one area where streetcar proponents have slightly misrepresented the situation.

A prominent belief among streetcar opponents is that the streetcar project is supported by increased property taxes. City officials scoff at the claim, but the basis for their scorn is largely semantic.

Property taxes have increased over the years to pay off existing capital debts and pay for specific projects, including a new police station on the West Side. So it’s true the increases haven’t gone directly to the streetcar.

But the streetcar is definitely benefiting from the higher property taxes. About $33 million of the streetcar’s financing comes from property tax capital, or debt that’s effectively backed by property taxes.

So without the project, it’s possible the revenue could have gone to other priorities — such as not hiking property taxes to begin with.

Misrepresentation No. 3: The project’s problems come from outside sources.

Supporters often claim the streetcar project’s problems were brought on by outside groups obstructing the project. That’s true to an extent, but it also ignores one of the project’s biggest issues: mismanagement.

Councilman Chris Seelbach has been one of the biggest critics of the city administration in this arena. At council meetings, it’s not unusual for Seelbach to criticize city officials for failing to get ahead of political issues. Seelbach has repeatedly told CityBeat that the city needs to do a better job with public relations and selling big ideas.

Qualls has recently joined Seelbach in the criticism. When announcing the streetcar project’s new accountability measures on June 24, Qualls told reporters that errors in construction bids helped cause cost overruns.

The reason City Council had to patch up $17.4 million in extra funding for the streetcar project was that construction bids came in $26 million to $43 million higher than the city administration originally estimated.

For supporters and critics, the high bids were an immediate red flag: Either something was wrong with the bid documents, or the administration irresponsibly lowballed construction estimates.

Since then, the city has since taken two major steps to redeem the project’s management: First, the accountability measures will keep City Council updated on the project’s problems and help provide more transparency for the public.

Second, the city is hiring John Deatrick, award-winning project manager for The Banks, to manage the streetcar. City officials have already fawned over Deatrick, who supporters say is an expert at bringing project costs in line.

Still, for all the talks about mismanagement, it’s normal for big projects like the streetcar to face problems and cost overruns.

“Any time you try to build something — even out in the middle of a corn field — you’re going to have unexpected, unanticipated issues,” Deatrick told CityBeat in April. “These things happen, and that’s what project management is all about.”

That’s especially true when major players, like the state, pull funding. Kasich killed a major funding allocation because of his opposition to the project. When obstructionism is that explicit, it should be little surprise if it leads to management missteps as city officials work with a much smaller budget.

Misrepresentation No. 2: The project is way too expensive.

Perhaps the root of all criticism toward the streetcar is the project’s cost. From the onset, streetcar opponents have called the price tag — then $110 million, now $133 million — too high.

That’s entirely up to someone’s ideology and where someone thinks the city government’s priorities should lie, so it’s not possible to fact check or scrutinize the claim.

But context is important: The federal government is paying for about one-third of the project. With the federal government’s latest contribution of $5 million, the feds are putting nearly $45 million toward the streetcar project through various grants aimed at transportation and transit projects.

That puts the city’s price tag at $88 million — or $103 million when accounting for the money Duke Energy is supposed to pay back.

There’s another caveat, too: In May, the city estimated $20 million had already been spent on the project and it would cost another $14 million to stop it now.

Math time: That means the city would essentially waste $34 million in order to avoid spending $54 million — $69 million if it loses the Duke Energy case — to finish the project. Plus, the millions in federal funding would be gone as well.  

Maybe streetcar opponents still think it’s a waste of money, but the full context shines some light on the deal the city is getting at this point.

Misrepresentation No. 1: Streetcar funds could have been used to save police and firefighter jobs.

By far the biggest falsehood perpetuated by streetcar opponents is that the project is getting cops, firefighters and other city employees laid off by siphoning the city’s operating funds.

It isn’t so. The streetcar project is paid for through capital funds. Because of limits established in Ohio law and the city charter, capital funds can’t be used for operating budget expenses.

The city actually passes two budgets: The operating budget dictates day-to-day operations, particularly the city’s payroll. The capital budget deals with major development projects, such as the streetcar, The Banks, street pavement and a new police station. 

Under this setup, capital funding is supposed to go to projects that generate economic growth. That growth is then supposed to lead to higher tax revenues for the city, which should make the operating budget easier to balance. If the capital projects are really successful, the city might even end up with surplus funds and put more people to work.

In the case of the streetcar, the final product is supposed to increase property values and attract new businesses and residents, which would result in higher earnings and property taxes for Cincinnati. That revenue could then be used to avoid making cuts or laying off city employees.

So even if City Council were to completely undo the streetcar project, it wouldn’t be able to shift the funding to avoid layoffs. In fact, terminating the project could hurt the operating budget in the long term by limiting potential growth.

Still, that hasn’t stopped some streetcar opponents from continuing to make the false connection. COAST has directly linked fire department brownouts and the streetcar in tweets, blog posts and press releases. John Cranley, who’s running for mayor against fellow Democrat Qualls this year, tends to simultaneously invoke city layoffs and the streetcar in stump speeches and statements, although he’s so far avoided stating that there’s a direct connection. ©

 
 
 
 

 

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