Believe in Cincinnati, the grassroots group that played a big role advocating for the Cincinnati streetcar during and since the infamous City Hall pause, is expanding its focus beyond Over-the-Rhine.
More than 80 people showed up to a meeting in Clifton Tuesday night to discuss taking the streetcar beyond OTR.
"We started around the streetcar, but our vision is much broader than that,” said Believe in Cincinnati organizer Ryan Messer. He said people from 80 percent of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods are involved in the group. “I think we have a vision that someday every neighborhood will have a transportation committee. The conversation we want to continue is this broader regional transit plan while ensuring we’re going forward with the Cincinnati streetcar.”
Believe in Cincinnati was instrumental in advocating for the streetcar last winter when recently-elected Mayor John Cranley, who campaigned on opposition to the streetcar, put the project on hold. When the project came back online, Vice Mayor David Mann credited the group with making a big difference.
Now progress on the streetcar is humming along. Project executive John Deatrick says construction of the track and the cars themselves is on schedule, with more than 7,000 feet of track done, four stations stops completed and delivery of the first five streetcars expected next fall and winter. Deatrick says the whole system should be up and running by summer 2016.
Deatrick also talked about the possibilities for “phase 1B,” or the extension of the streetcar into uptown. That leg of the route was part of the initial plans for the system until Gov. John Kasich pulled $52 million in state funds from the project in 2010.
That’s left the proposed extension into Corryville and Clifton without funding.
Deatrick said the city has decided not to pursue a federal grant to build the uptown extension, because the downtown portion isn’t far enough along yet.
But Deatrick said the city has continued to explore the possibility of running the streetcar up Vine Street and has kept plans for an eventual expansion up to date.
“As soon as city council and the mayor are ready, we’re ready to apply for more money,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Advocates see uptown, including Avondale, Corryville and Clifton, as a logical next step in the progression of the streetcar since it’s where a big number of the city’s jobs are located, including major hospitals and the University of Cincinnati, the city’s largest employers.
Councilman Kevin Flynn, who cast a deciding vote to restart the project last December, voiced cautious support for Believe in Cincinnati’s efforts but said the challenges faced by efforts to expand the line are daunting. He told the crowd not to put the cart before the horse.
“On the day I made the vote, I said, ‘this isn’t the end, this is the beginning.’” Flynn said. “I see energy, but we have to harness that energy. I understand this is talking about how we get to phase two. I don’t mean to be a party pooper, but the way to get to phase two is to make phase one a success.
"I've talked to a lot of the big employers uptown. They'd all like to see the streetcar up here. There's no money — right now — to do that. But probably more important than the money… there's not the will. The only way the will could possibly be generated is to make phase one a financial success."
While funding is the big stumbling block for expanding the system right now, that hasn’t stopped Believe in Cincinnati from growing. The group recently hired a full-time employee to continue to promote the group and transit projects for the next five months and has been raising funds from donors both in Cincinnati and across the country.
The group has also been meeting with residents in communities outside the streetcar’s current planned path. Messer said he’s spoken with community council members and other community leaders in a number of neighborhoods, including Hyde Park, Avondale and even communities in Northern Kentucky. All have expressed interest in eventually widening the streetcar’s reach.
West Side transit advocate Pete Witte said interest in the streetcar is growing in neighborhoods like Price Hill and Westwood. He joked that Cincinnati’s western neighborhoods are a “lion’s pit” when it comes to the issue. Those neighborhoods voted overwhelmingly for Mayor Cranley and his opposition to the project.
But with progress downtown, Witte said some in the West Side are coming around. He highlighted the looming reconstruction of the Western Hills Viaduct as a great opportunity to have the conversation about expanding transit to the area.
“We’re real people, residents, business owners, raising families, going to school, whatever, who understand the importance that transit can make for our community and the city as a whole,” Witte said of West Siders who are advocating for transit expansion. “We’re going to be meeting and focusing on the Western Hills Viaduct, but it does go beyond that.”
Messer said his group believes the issue of transit doesn’t have to be politically divisive.
think a lot of people have said they’re a little surprised we’re not a
bunch of flaming liberals who want to put streetcars everywhere and
don’t care about what it costs," he said. "Some of us are probably progressive,
some of us are not. I don’t know that transit is a partisan issue. We
see transit as an investment to grow our city.”