Ohio’s new governor tries to ax a second rail plan


Philip Langdon

New Urban Network


Backers of a long-planned streetcar line that would link downtown Cincinnati to the Uptown area and the University of Cincinnati are disheartened by what Ohio’s new Republican governor is doing.

Upon taking office, Gov. John Kasich removed Ohio from the Obama administrations’s plans for building or improving long-distance rail corridors around the nation. He rejected federal construction money for a rail route connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati.

Now Kasich is part of an effort to deny a Cincinnati streetcar project $52 million of promised state funds. Loss of the state funds, which had been tentatively approved last fall by the Ohio Department of Transportation’s Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC), would make it much harder to build the 2.5-mile, $128 million streetcar line.

Advocates of the streetcar line have consistently argued that the streetcar line would would be a boon to Cincinnati’s development.

“Of the several dozen being proposed across the United States, the streetcar project in Cincinnati is one of the most promising because it connects what is one of the country’s most densely built center cities to a major university,” Yonah Freemark wrote March 22 on TheTransportPolitic blog. “It would run through the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, which saw major riots ten years ago but now is being rapidly transformed through building improvements and infill.”

Indeed, “TRAC awards money based on a merit score, and the Cincinnati Streetcar earned 84 points which placed it as the highest-scoring transportation project in the entire state,” Randy A. Simes pointed out last month on the UrbanCincy blog.

But Ohio faces an $8 billion budget deficit, and Kasich wants the state to rescind the $52 million that the city had been counting on. The Cincinnati Enquirer has been fighting the streetcar project, arguing in July 2009 that the city first needs to get “a better handle on its fiscal responsibilities.” In mid-March, the Enquirer reiterated its opposition, encouraged by the fact that City Council member Jeff Berding, previously a supporter of the streetcar, said the plan “no longer works” and should be put on hold.

The Enquirer posed a series of questions, including these: “Can it be built if the state pulls its money next month? … Does the city have a handle on what it will cost to operate the system once it’s built? Does it have a plan for operational costs other than relying on casino money?”

Last year Cincinnatians expressed strong support for the project when TRAC met. More recently, public comments to the state agency have mostly opposed it, arguing that it is ill-conceived or ill-timed or both.

But is the project really ill-conceived? “Two separate studies estimate that the modern streetcar project will stimulate approximately $1.5 billion of new investment in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, or roughly 15 times the cost of the streetcar project,” Simes noted. “Why is our governor against redeveloping Cincinnati’s downtown and Over-the-Rhine areas with the streetcar?” asked Jack Shaner, deputy director of the Ohio Environmental Council. “Steel rails offer a far superior path to jobs and growth and clean air than yet another asphalt road pitted with potholes.”

At one point, Kasich expressed his opposition to the streetcar by saying “we’re not living in Portland. And by the way, I don’t want to live in Portland.” It’s not clear whether he was saying that Cincinnati cannot hope to reproduce the huge economic success that the Portland Streetcar has achieved — it is credited with spurring an enormous volume of development in the Oregon city’s core — or whether he simply dislikes Portland. (Attacking Portland has been almost a cottage industry for libertarian think tanks that oppose strong regional planning.)

Portland has achieved probably the most dramatic improvement of any US urban center in the past 30 years. The downtown is thriving, and development is taking place on both sides of the Willamette River. Reliance on automobiles to get to and from work has declined — surely a positive trend at a time of rising and unstable oil prices.

Moreover, Portland has managed, even in a period of high unemployment, to attract large numbers of young, talented people — the kind of workers on which the future of the economy is believed to depend. Kasich’s dismissal of Portland and of the streetcar line does not augur well for Cincinnati’s future.

One advocate of the streetcar wrote to TRAC that it would be a “transformative project” and would help Cincinnati “create new jobs and revive development” in the inner city.

Council member and former mayor Roxanne Qualls, another strong streetcar supporter, said in early March that Kasich’s position creates a new obstacle for the project, but she argued that the governor’s stance will not scuttle it. At worst, Qualls said, if TRAC follows Kasich’s lead, the city would simply have to seek additional funds from Washington or other sources to supplement the other local, state, and federal dollars already identified.

“This is a setback,” Qualls was quoted as saying by the Enquirer. “Is it going to kill the project? No.”

On March 23 the Enquirer reported two other threats to the streetcar. First, Councilman Charlie Winburn prepared a proposal directing the city manager to abandon any further planning activities for the streetcar.  Second, the Ohio Senate passed a two-year transportation budget containing a provision prohibiting the appropriation of state or federal funds for the streetcar project. (That action has yet to win passage in the House.)

There has been talk in Cincinnati about possibly shortening the initial route, cutting it to one track instead of two, or reducing the number of initial stops — allowing at least a portion of the overall plan to be built.

The state is expected to decide on the rescinding of state funds April 12.

On TheTransportPolitic blog, Freemark raised a larger issue — about the increasingly common overturning of government decisions on transportation initiatives:

Whether or not this project is a good investment or not, though, is only half of the question: At this point, the funding for the project had been identified and people had begun making decisions based on the assumption that it would be completed. The same could be said for the intercity rail line planned for Wisconsin, for example, where train maker Talgo built a manufacturing plant and hired employees after getting a state commitment to buy rail cars — only to be told months later that the project had been de-funded.

What message does this send to potential investors in a city like Cincinnati? If a city’s plans for a transportation project, even when fully funded, can be shut down because of the decisions of a new governor, how can anybody make long-term assumptions about where and how to develop? Moreover, why should they invest in a place whose politicians think they can renege on previous commitments?