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Battle for the Streetcar: A Marathon, not a Sprint

What COASTers dream about at night. (Image:

Some people apparently can’t take “no” for an answer. Having seen his pet cause, Issue 9, soundly defeated at the polls last year, local NAACP honcho Chris Smitherman is at it again:

The Cincinnati streetcar, the controversial $128 million plan that has traveled a bumpy path from the start, faces more potential rocky spots in 2011, including a possible second attempt to derail it on the ballot.

The local NAACP, which led the push for an unsuccessful 2009 charter amendment that would have effectively killed the streetcar by requiring public votes on future passenger rail projects, is considering another ballot measure next year aimed at achieving the same goal.

The article notes that City Council has already taken all the votes required to get the project up and running, so it’s questionable whether this proposed ballot measure would have any legal standing. Although a small gap in funding remains, more than enough money exists in the streetcar budget to complete the initial loop between downtown and Over-the-Rhine. If the uptown segment must be postponed until additional funding is available, then so be it.

There’s also the issue of timing. If the NAACP actually gets this resolution on the ballot and it passes, that means the streetcar will already have been under construction almost a full year when the referendum results would become effective. It would be the height of idiocy to kill the project when it’s already halfway complete, but then, more idiotic things have happened here (see: the Cincinnati subway). So then Cincinnati would proudly boast of a half-completed subway line, a half-completed streetcar line, a half-demolished train station in Queensgate, and an unused train station under 2nd Street. Making the streetcar out to be a “boondoggle” would have become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

There are also questions to be raised about the wording of any such ballot measure. There’s no technical difference between a “streetcar” and a “light rail” line, so the measure’s language would have to be sufficiently broad to cover all possibilities. What would the measure specifically outlaw? All passenger rail? See: Issue 9.

This highlights the problem with direct democracy, and is the reason this nation was wisely set up as a representative republic. If it were up to me, the entire citizen-led referendum process would be entirely scrapped, or at least overhauled so as to make it less likely for things like this to happen. If I got enough signatures, should I be able to amend the city charter such that each city resident gets a million-dollar check and a pony for their birthday? There has to be some legal mechanism for such measures to be struck down when they conflict with the government’s fundamental ability to serve its core functions. Just ask anybody in California how well their exercises in mob rule have worked out.

When Issue 9 was defeated, I warned that it wasn’t yet time for Cincinnatians for Progress and other pro-streetcar groups to pat themselves on the back and simply ride off into the sunset. Unfortunately, that seems to have been exactly what Cincinnatians for Progress has done, given that their blog and email listserv have been silent for nearly a year. Given COAST/Smitherman’s utter lack of credibility, did anybody really believe they would simply throw in the towel after Issue 9, even when they admitted they lost the streetcar fight? The streetcar’s opponents won’t rest until the project is dead and every politician who supported it is out of office, and that means we can’t rest either. Issue 9 was one battle, but the war won’t be over until the day the streetcar makes its first revenue run with paying customers on board.

In the long term, this also highlights the need for a truly regional transit agency that has the authority to plan, fund, and build major infrastructure projects throughout Greater Cincinnati, without being held hostage by parochial politics at the municipal or county level. Such an agency would ideally be modeled after the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, two agencies that provide effective transit service that crosses state and county lines. While both the PANYNJ and WMATA each have their shortcomings, a centralized agency that, in theory, functions independently of petty local politics is desperately needed here. Such an authority would ideally have jurisdiction over local transit (including the streetcar, regional rail, and bus routes), interstate river crossings, and the Cincinnati – Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Finally, there’s this at the end of the article:

If a second initiative either does not qualify for the ballot or fails to win voters’ approval, opponents believe the new political action committee – Citizens Against Streetcar Swindle – offers another opportunity to try to block the project by cutting off its support inside City Hall.

“We’ll be going after anyone for the streetcar,” said former Cincinnati congressman, mayor and councilman Tom Luken, the group’s treasurer. “If you’re for the streetcar and running for council, 2011 is going to be a tough year.”

If I were running for City Council, I would wear Tom Luken’s opposition as a badge of honor.