For Cincinnati, which lost one-tenth of its population in the past decade, hopes for a more prosperous future may rest with people like Alex Shebar. The 25-year old moved to Cincinnati shortly after college. Just a few months ago, he got a new apartment in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine, where new restaurants and bars give him plenty of material for his work as a reviewer for the website Yelp.
The neighborhood, adjacent to downtown Cincinnati, has a checkered history. It boasts one of the largest historic districts in the country, full of ornate buildings and architectural gems built in the late 1800s. Since then, much of the area has fallen into disrepair. A brief resurgence in the 1990s was cut short 10 years ago by a race riot. But now the area is taking off again. Shebar says the chance to be part of the neighborhood's revival is what brought him to Over-the-Rhine.
For city planners, a key component to bringing back the neighborhood — and priming the whole city for growth — is a new streetcar line. The planned five-mile route would take passengers from the skyscrapers of downtown, past museums and theaters, through Over-the-Rhine and up a hill to the campus of the University of Cincinnati. Its purpose, planners say, is just as much about driving new development and jobs to the urban core as it is about moving people. Shebar agrees. "Just the idea of having a streetcar in the city," he says, "changes the whole look of the neighborhood."
Cincinnati officials had hoped to break ground this spring. Now, that plan is in doubt. Ohio Governor John Kasich wants to block $52 million — one-third of the construction cost — that had been designated for the project. If Kasich succeeds, city officials would have to significantly scale back the project or kill it altogether. It also would be the third time since he won election in November that he has blocked federal money for public transportation in Ohio.
The first time was when Kasich, a Republican, rejected $25 million in federal stimulus money that was to go toward a intercity rail line linking Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus. Kasich called the plan a "money pit" for costing the state $17 million a year and ridiculed the initial slow speeds on the supposed high-speed rail line.
More recently, Kasich redirected money that his predecessor, Ted Strickland, had pledged to city transit systems. Strickland committed to make available $150 million over three years in competitive grants; Kasich wants to scale that back to $80 million and use the difference to pay off bonds. The lower funding level, however, still represents an increase over what the state gave transit systems two years ago.
On a recent visit to the University of Cincinnati, Kasich was blunt in his opposition to the local streetcar. While Strickland, a Democrat, had supported the Cincinnati streetcar, Kasich told reporters, "There's a new sheriff in town."
In particular, Kasich says he is not convinced that the streetcar would bring the economic boom that its supporters, including Mayor Mark Mallory, have promised. Those promises were reviewed by a state board called the Transportation Review Advisory Council , or TRAC. The board funnels money to local road and rail projects and prioritizes which ones should get funding first. During Strickland's tenure, TRAC reviewed the streetcar's transportation benefits along with its potential for spurring economic growth; the board gave the project 84 points out of 100, the highest of any transportation project on its list.
But Kasich told the Cincinnati Enquirer that his transportation secretary, Jerry Wray, took another look at the evaluation and found much to disagree with — especially the contention that the streetcar would help local businesses. "The streetcar," Kasich said, "is not a job creator."
As Ohio's transportation chief, Wray also serves as the new head of the TRAC board, which often follows the lead of its chairperson. On April 12, the board will vote on whether to block the $52 million. The amount includes $15 million the board approved last year but never sent to the city, along with $35 million for next year. The rest would cover planning for a planned expansion on the north end of the line, which would bring it into the university campus, near two hospitals and up to the city zoo.
None of the money at stake comes directly from the state. Instead, it is federal money that the state gets to decide how to allocate; the grant does not directly impact the state's dire budget situation. But David Rose, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation, says there are other reasons why the state is looking to trim its list of TRAC projects, including the Cincinnati streetcar.
The most important, he says, is that TRAC has previously committed to more projects than it can afford to pay for. That means projects put on the list linger there for years without any guarantee of funding, which hampers the ability of local officials to plan well, Rose says. The cuts to the Cincinnati streetcar account for nearly half of the funding cuts TRAC is now considering.
Even if the TRAC board were to renew its support for the Cincinnati streetcar, the fight would not end there. As part of an overall transportation package, the Ohio state Senate has passed a provision that would bar the state from spending money on the Cincinnati streetcar. The state House has not yet voted on the measure.
An economic boon?
John Schneider, the chairman of Cincinnati's Alliance for Regional Transit , believes that Kasich's criticisms of the streetcar miss the mark.
"The Cincinnati streetcar is not a jobs program," Schneider argues. "It is an urban amenity that helps to create the climate where people want to live, work and invest, which incidentally will create some jobs. You don't repopulate a neighborhood without creating new jobs."
Pointing to streetcar successes in Portland, Oregon and other cities, Schneider argues that the streetcar would revitalize urban areas in ways that buses or other transportation options cannot. Rails in the ground are harder to move than bus stops — so the presence of a streetcar line reassures local businesses that customers will be nearby for years to come, he says. Close proximity to a streetcar line can even help local businesses get more favorable rates on loans, he adds.
Large employers in the area also are backing the streetcar plan, adds Meg Olberdig, a spokeswoman for the city manager's office. They see it as important to attracting talented new employees. "Study after study, article after article have shown that young professionals are place-based. They are location-based," Olberdig says. "They look for amenities, including mass transit, that allows them a vibrant place-based experience. That is important to our Fortune 500 companies."
Alex Shebar agrees. "Just use the word 'streetcar' and it gets people excited," he says. "It's a form of transportation people like to take. They want to say they ride the streetcar to work every day. Nobody is going to say I'm happy to take the bus every day."