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It’s Time to Fight for Midwest Rail Transit

By early spring, construction on the fully funded Cincinnati Streetcar will officially begin, starting an exciting chapter in that City’s urban core and charting a new course for urbanism in the Midwest.  You would think this would be a time of celebration for Cincinnati as they have been fighting the good fight to bring rail transit to their urban core for quite some time now.  But unfortunately, the City is once again in a fight for its life to save the Cincinnati Streetcar – and they needs all the help they can get.

In 2009, Cincinnatians successfully fought back against special interest groups and an anti-rail initiative that would have severely hampered economic development in Cincinnati.  After the ballot initiative was resoundingly defeated, the City spent the next year attaining local, state, and federal funding to help build the streetcar, connecting Cincinnati’s riverfront to downtown, Over-the-Rhine, and Uptown.  By the end of 2010 it appeared the streetcar was a guarantee, with all funding secured and a construction date in sight.  But with a new governor elected in November 2010 came a different set of priorities and viewpoints on rail transportation in Ohio.  Shortly after the election, Ohio’s new governor said “thanks but no thanks” to $400 million in federal money for the 3C Rail initiative, something that would have connected Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati with passenger rail.  This policy decision has rallied anti-streetcar special interest groups in Cincinnati and given them once again emboldened them to try to stop the streetcar on the eve of its construction.

Opponents of the streetcar have began waging a campaign to force the State of Ohio to revoke two promised grants necessary for the streetcar project, despite the fact that the project is the highest scoring project on ODOT’s Major New Program List .  On top of this, local special interest groups (the same ones who lead the similar ballot initiative in 2009) are collecting signatures to place the streetcar on a special election ballot in May that would cost taxpayers 400,000.  This year’s ballot initiative goes a step further than the 2009 initiative and explicitly outlaws and passenger rail investment within public right-of-way over the next ten years.  This will include not just streetcars, but also light rail and commuter rail.

If either of these efforts succeeds and the streetcar is successfully derailed, a large amount of money already spent on the project will be wasted, a major opportunity to create economic development for Cincinnati’s center city would be missed, and a terrible precedent will be set for future rail improvements throughout the Midwest.  If the special interest groups get their way in Cincinnati, similar groups might become emboldened in places like Indianapolis where IndyConnect is still on the drawing board, leaving that project vulnerable to similar attacks seen in Cincinnati.  This is why supporting the Cincinnati streetcar isn’t just important for that city’s urban future, but for the Midwest as a whole.

If you live in the City of Cincinnati, register to vote now so that you can have a voice in May and defeat the anti-rail ballot initiative.  But regardless of where you live, please write the State DOT an email or letter expressing your support for the streetcar by February 11, 2011.  It’s important that the comments received are positive and stress the need to fund the two separate streetcar allocations, which 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:
TRAC@dot.state.oh.us

For more information on the Cincinnati Streetcar and why it is a smart investment, check out CincyStreetcar Blog or CincinnatiStreetcar.com for official project details, studies and reports.

7 Responses to “ “It’s Time to Fight for Midwest Rail Transit”

  1. Curt says:

    I sent an email last week regarding this issue.

  2. That is good news. Cincinnati needs all the help it can get – including urbanists in Indy.

  3. Kyle M. says:

    If Cincinnati is able to win this fight I just might find myself living there in the future unless Indy gets its act together and Indy Connect becomes reality

  4. Phil says:

    I respectfully disagree with your repeated use of the term “special interests”. One man’s “special interest” is another man’s freedom of speech. Just because you disagree with those who oppose this project doesn’t warrant the use of the term that implies such a sinister intent. Since your article did not cover the cost benefit analysis of the project I have no way to know whether the project is worthy of support or not; but I am certain that no matter how worthy the goal is, cost should always be a consideration. “Damn the torpedos” government spending is so yesterday.

    • Curt Ailes says:

      Phil, the problem with what is going on in Cincinnati, is that this referendum was knocked down once, and the democratic elected ledaers of the city moved forward based upon that vote. Financing was secured, and state DOT reports have even added legitimacy to the project. In this case, yes, “special intersts” groups who did not like how the NO on issue 9 went down, are trying to phrase it another way. Regardless, it still doesn’t address the vastly skewed bias towards road based financing that goes on in the midwest. While funding is tight for every level of government, we shouldn’t hamstring ourself by turning off the tap. When a smart project come along that promises to deliver economic value, and is backed up by state DOTs (who are notorious for road bias), the project shouldn’t be stiffled by a small amount of people with big mouths in key places.

  5. Phil, I intentionally left out the details of the project because, quite simply, that is not the point of this piece. The point is to raise awareness that a project that is fully funded and that is RAIL transit in a places urban core is being threatened. I did give two links to the CincyStreetcarBlog and the Cincinnati Streetcar website that breaks down cost/benefit ratios (which is estimated to be 2.7:1 btw) as well as costs so check those out if you are curious. But like I said, the project has already garnered local, state, and national funding and is considered a solid investment from each level of government.

  6. Eric says:

    Detroit will have light rail by 2013 paid for by private investing. You’d think indy, being the gov’t privatization king, could do that.

    http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2011/02/everything_you_always_wanted_t.html

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