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Monkeys on our Backs

(Image: Justin McElroy /

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
— Isaac Asimov

Once again, the alliance of extremists who brought us the failed Issue 9 campaign has demonstrated they can’t take a hint. In 2009 their catchphrase was “We Demand a Vote!” This year it may as well be, “You voted the wrong way in 2009, stupid!”

As in 2009, the primary instigators are the Tea Party-affiliated COAST (“Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes”) and Chris Smitherman’s local branch of the NAACP. They are joined by the bosses of the police and firefighters unions as well as Westwood Concern.

Their reasons for opposing the streetcar are varied. In theory, COAST sees the streetcar as an example of wasteful government spending, but this conveniently ignores the streetcar’s projected 2.7 to 1.0 ratio of Benefits to Costs, and when it comes to unnecessary freeway projects that make the streetcar budget look like pocket change, COAST’s silence is deafening. If COAST had any intellectual honesty they’d be applauding the city for finding common-sense ways to improve the city’s business climate and strengthen its tax base without raising tax rates, but given how their Tea Party friends are largely financed by an oil company and how COAST endorsed a gubernatorial candidate who promptly placed a former asphalt industry lobbyist as director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, one doesn’t need to look far to realize there will never be a rail proposal that COAST likes nor a freeway proposal that COAST hates, regardless of the costs or merits.

Chris Smitherman, for his part, has his own agenda. As Mayor Mallory’s political arch-rival and self-appointed spokesman for African Americans in Cincinnati, he can be counted on to provide knee-jerk opposition to any idea that might be the least bit sensible. A regional waterworks district? Nay. A cost-saving merger between the Cincinnati Police Department and the Hamilton County Sherif? Nay. Having been voted off City Council in 2005 after only a single term, Smitherman must now resort to bizarre conspiracy theories and fear-mongering in order to remain relevant. Ever eager for a ratings boost, our local media is all too happy to provide people like Smitherman and COAST a megaphone that far outsizes their actual constituency.

Westwood Concern and the local public safety unions oppose the streetcar based on the fallacy that capital funds for the streetcar can somehow be shifted toward operational expenses for public safety. This ignores the much-overlooked fact that capital funds cannot be used for operational expenses, and that the most effective way to increase public safety is to revitalize our neighborhoods with improved public transit. And let us not forget that this special election in itself will cost the city nearly half a million dollars of operational funds that could otherwise be spent on public safety.

"We believe in nothing."

While their anti-streetcar alliance is little more than a marriage of convenience (since when has COAST ever been a friend of organized labor, particularly for public sector employees?), what the streetcar naysayers have in common is their nihilistic belief that Cincinnati is a failed, dysfunctional city that isn’t worth the effort of saving. The vast majority of COAST’s membership is based in the suburbs, where the city is typically looked upon as a dumping ground for criminals and the indigent. That stereotype is apparently fine with Smitherman, who has shown himself to be perfectly willing to exploit poverty and crime in the urban core for his own political gain, while offering no solutions.

While Mayor Mallory and a new generation of civic leaders have decided that our notorious “We can’t do that in Cincinnati” modus operandi is no longer acceptable, the naysayers are perfectly content with the dysfunctional status quo that has defined the city during the post-war period. The naysayers have no ideas of their own, but they furiously shout down anybody else’s ideas. They build nothing, but they fight like hell to tear down what others work hard to build. Their biggest fear is a healthy, vibrant urban core that will further discredit their world view and further erode their power base. Their political fortunes depend upon the streetcar’s failure.

The proposed Issue 9 charter amendment in 2009 would have made any investment in passenger rail transit all but impossible by requiring a public vote before any such expenditures are made. That amendment was soundly defeated at the ballot box, the voters correctly deciding that long-term infrastructure planning is best done via representative democracy instead of mob rule. This year’s charter amendment will go a step further, and explicitly outlaw any passenger rail investment for the next ten years. Not only will this include the streetcar, but also any form of regional light rail, commuter rail, or intercity rail. “We Demand a Vote” has become “We Demand You Sit in Traffic Until 2021”.

With your help, though, this effort will meet the same fate as Issue 9. Here’s what you can do:

Write Letters

Opponents of progress are waging a campaign to force the State of Ohio to revoke two promised grants for the streetcar project, despite the fact that the streetcar is the highest-scoring project on ODOT’s Major New Program List (PDF).

Your letter or email on behalf of the Cincinnati Streetcar needs to be received by the state’s Transportation Review Advisory Council during the Public Comment period which ends Friday, February 11th. It’s important that the comments received are positive and stress the need to fund the two separate streetcar allocations included in the draft-list. They are:

  • $35 million in Construction Funding for “Cincinnati Streetcar Phase 1”
  • $1.8 million in Preliminary Engineering funding for the “Cincinnati Uptown Streetcar”

Comments can be submitted in two ways:

By regular mail to:
Ohio Department of Transportation
attn: Ed Kagel, TRAC Coordinator
1980 W. Broad Street
Columbus, OH 43223

By email to:

Register to Vote

According to streetcar proponent John Schneider, “This election will probably be decided by fewer than 25,000 voters, fewer than one in ten Cincinnatians, so your involvement has a lot of leverage… For starters, make sure anyone you know who might be inclined to sign the petition reads it very carefully. Second, make sure you are registered at the correct polling place and make sure any Cincinnati-resident supporters you know are similarly registered. This will be a game of inches, won with lots of individual efforts.”

Check the Hamilton County Board of Elections site for voter registration information.

Donate and Volunteer for Cincinnatians for Progress

The following message was sent to to the CFP mailing list last week from co-chair Rob Richardson:

I am sending this email as an invitation to join me and many others from our community in serving on the host committee for Cincinnatians for Progress’ “Get on Board ” event at historic Grammer’s in OTR on Wednesday, February 16th, 6-8 pm. [Grammer’s is located on the southeast corner of Walnut and Liberty Streets.]

I am asking you to not only join us on February 16th but to also be an instigator for progress because I believe you care about the future of Cincinnati, which is greatly dependent upon preserving transportation options in the best interest of our region.

To sign up as a Get on Board Host, please email or make your donation to CFP and designate “host” in the comments field. To sign up as a Get on Board Host, please email or make your donation to CFP and designate “host” in the comments field.

By committing as a host, we ask you to consider contributing $100 and/or recruit 5 people to attend the event on February 16th. An official invitation will be made available to all confirmed hosts within the next few days.If you cannot host, please consider giving a donation of $25, $35, or $50 Donate to CFP

Our Get on Board event is an opportunity to make a statement and tell the naysayers that not only did we defeat their ill-framed intentions a la Issue 9 in November 2009, but to remind them we are not going to allow them to steamroll our community.  This new Round 2 anti progress charter amendment will have even more damaging effects than Issue 9 if passed and would permanently damage our City’s ability to pursue any passenger rail transportation and destroy thousands of new good paying jobs for Cincinnati.

Help us Stop this dangerous petition in its tracks.

Thank you for your consideration! I hope you will join us.

Update: This version of the article corrects the date of the Issue 9 defeat and clarifies the streetcar’s projected cost-benefit ratio.