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Want Better Public Safety? Then Build the Streetcar

Remember that time Metro Cincinnati exploited the death of a teenager in a horrific car accident to illustrate the need for fewer highways and better public transit? Oh right, you don’t remember that, because it never happened. That hasn’t stopped the usual suspects from exploiting a recent fire in Northside and looming police layoffs to make yet another desperate stand against the streetcar project, despite the incontrovertible fact that the city’s public safety budget and the streetcar budget have precisely nothing to do with each other. In fact, building the streetcar will reduce crime and increase the amount of funding available for police and fire protection, but you’ll never hear that from Tom Luken, COAST, or their stenographers in the local media.

Like Captain Ahab pursuing the great white whale named Moby Dick, Tom Luken’s irrational obsession with killing the streetcar remains unabated. Now the Pequod is sailing again, this time in the form of CASS, a Facebook group and political action committee titled Citizens Against the Streetcar Swindle.

As of this writing they’ve raised a staggering $100 toward their cause, but they’ve gotten plenty of coverage in their friendly local newspaper, complete with a parody of the Mr. Rogers theme song that COAST member Mark Miller must have taken an entire five minutes to write. CASS members include Luken, Miller, the heads of the local police and firefighters unions, and Westwood Concern activist Mary Kuhl. (Westwood Concern, as you may recall, is best known for their shrill rhetoric and threats to secede from the city of Cincinnati).

Operating under Martin Luther’s premise that “the best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn,” yours truly has created a satirical group on Facebook called BANANAS, or Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody, Stupid. Our mission statement is as follows:

Just imagine how much money the city would have for cops and firefighters if we had never built all those expensive sewers, bridges, and paved streets. After all, the city exists to serve the police and firefighters unions, not the other way around. Down with infrastructure!

The central argument being mocked is that streetcar funds should be diverted to preventing the layoffs of police and firefighters as the city struggles to bridge a $60 million shortfall in the operating budget. While it makes for a convenient excuse for more grandstanding, CASS’s argument ignores the fact that the city’s capital funds (from which the streetcar construction is being paid) cannot be used for operational expenses such as police and fire protection. No amount of “but it’s all taxpayer money” will change that, and the Cincinnati Enquirer does a disservice to responsible journalism whenever they fail to report this fact.

(Note to the Enquirer: It’s not enough to simply quote a streetcar opponent and a streetcar supporter in the same article and imply “we report, you decide” for the sake of some mythical notion of objectivity. Journalism means actual research and fact-checking, as opposed to merely serving as a stenographer for the loudest or most extreme people in town.)

Even if the city were to cancel the streetcar project tomorrow, we’d still be looking at a $60M deficit, police layoffs, and fire department brownouts. The federal streetcar funds would simply be given back to Washington for use in some other city, and the municipal bonds would be used on some other capital project, such as another football stadium for Mike Brown.

More cops and firefighters means more money going into the coffers of their respective unions, but it does not necessarily mean a safer city. For example, the crime rates in Dayton continue to decline even as that city has laid off over a hundred police officers. What we need is smarter policing, not necessarily more of it.

But let’s assume for a minute that we really do need more cops and firefighters. One approach would be to simply raise taxes, which would put further financial pressure on city residents and would no doubt have COAST screaming bloody murder. Or we could increase revenue by making the city a more attractive place to live and to do business.

Photo: Randy Simes /

If COAST had any intellectual honesty, they would be applauding the city for pursuing strategies that will increase revenue without raising taxes. Cincinnati is taking a proactive approach to urban development that will revitalize downtown and Over-the-Rhine, and increase the city’s revenue stream via additional businesses and residents along the streetcar route.

As Over-the-Rhine improves, crime will decrease, allowing police to be deployed to other neighborhoods. Instead of a vacant building that provides a den for criminals and creates a public safety hazard, that building will house residents and businesses that contribute to the city’s tax base and make for a safer community. Multiply that effect along the entire streetcar route, and the economic benefits of the streetcar to the entire city become clear.