The “S” Word, A History

Councilmembers who voted to continue the streetcar (from left to right) Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld, Yvette Simpson, Wendell Young, Kevin Flynn, David Mann, their six votes were required to disable Cranley from vetoing the ordinance to continue construction. Photo: Mike Moroski
Councilmembers who voted to continue the streetcar (from left to right) Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld, Yvette Simpson, Wendell Young, Kevin Flynn, David Mann, their six votes were required to disable Cranley from vetoing the ordinance to continue construction. Photo: Mike Moroski

Councilmembers who voted to continue the streetcar (from left to right) Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld, Yvette Simpson, Wendell Young, Kevin Flynn, David Mann, their six votes were required to disable Cranley from vetoing the ordinance to continue construction. Photo: Mike Moroski

It’s the word that you have to think twice about before uttering at family gatherings.  It’s the topic that may or may not be a good idea to bring up at a bar or restaurant depending in which neighborhood you are.  It’s the word that, if used in a Facebook post, could potentially garner you over 200 “likes” and over 60 really angry comments.

It conjures images of hope for some; hatred and waste for others.

It promises significant return on investment (ROI) for some; guaranteed layoffs for the City’s safety personnel for others.

It is “sound investment” for some; it is an “amusement park ride” for others.

Guessed the “S” word yet?  I imagine you have – the streetcar.

There are few, perhaps no, issues that I have seen divide this City more than the streetcar in the (going on) 17 years that I have lived in Cincinnati.  Yes, the riots divided us, but not in the same way as the streetcar.  The riots were a reaction to years of mistreatment & ignorance.  One could claim, if one were so inclined, that the riots ultimately brought the City together and forced us to have a serious conversation about race issues (note that I do not feel we have had these conversations yet – not to the extent that we could, at least).  The same phenomenon, that of bringing people together, cannot (yet) be said for the streetcar.  The riots pitted groups of people against one another, but the dividing lines were clear and you always knew who was on whose side.  The streetcar, on the other hand, has made strange bedfellows indeed (e.g., local Democrats and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, or, COAST).

Now, do not get me wrong, the events surrounding the riots were (and are) far more significant than the issue of the streetcar, but those events in 2001 are the only ones that seem to serve as a “counterpoint” to the strange events of the past few months regarding the streetcar.  And my human mind, like all human minds, desires comparison when looking to make sense of current realities.

All that said, I was asked to write about the history of the streetcar for the Northsider.  That is a tall order unless the editors of this publication desire a 400 page dissertation.  So, I will stick to the basic facts, and, with this publication’s blessing, add an editorial comment or two.

In 2002 a comprehensive light rail plan was introduced to the City of Cincinnati.  It looks very similar to the one that opponents of the streetcar say would be a “good investment” today – you know, the one that opponents always compare to the current streetcar, saying the one we have now doesn’t go “far enough.”  Well, these very same people said the one in 2002 was “too big.”

The voters of Hamilton County shot down this proposal, called MetroMoves, by nearly a two to one ratio.  But that’s not the end of the story, it gets much better.  After the voters shot down this proposal, Governor John Kasich gave $400 million in high speed rail funding back to the Federal government.  This left Cincinnati in a bind.  If we wanted light rail, we would have to go our own way and leave Columbus out of it.

It deserves to be mentioned at this point that President Barack Obama is a huge fan of rail and transit.  It was Obama’s administration that gave outgoing Democratic Governor Ted Strickland the $400 million for comprehensive light rail.  It was then Republican Governor John Kasich who immediately gave it back.  So, Democratic Mayor, Mark Mallory, decided to go ahead and get his own money for his own City.  And that’s precisely what Mayor Mallory did.

In 2007, five years after MetroMoves failed at the ballot box, Cincinnati completed its own feasibility study to determine if modern streetcars would be beneficial to our City’s urban core.  It was determined that they were beneficial to the region and would garner a significant ROI for the City.

On April 23rd, 2008, Cincinnati City Council voted to begin construction on a streetcar line that began at the Banks and ended in the Uptown/Clifton area.  The theory was to connect the two largest employment regions in the City and spur investment along the rails.

However, construction was halted in 2009 when COAST and the local NAACP gathered enough signatures to put the streetcar to referendum.  In November of that same year the voters overwhelmingly voted against Issue 9 (to the tune of 56%).  The streetcar moved forward. . .

. . .But not for long.  In 2011, signatures were gathered again and the streetcar went back to the ballot box and was once more soundly defeated by 52% of the voters who voted against Issue 48.

It was at this point that many people began investing along the streetcar route as they felt assured that the project was finally moving forward.  This was all two years before the fateful Mayoral election of 2013, when the streetcar once again became the center of the public’s attention.

One candidate, Democrat/Charterite Roxanne Qualls, had been a streetcar proponent for years and championed the 2.7:1 ROI on the campaign trail.  The other candidate, Democrat John Cranley, touted the streetcar as a waste of money that would force the City to layoff police & fire personnel if it was built.

Around the middle of the campaign season the streetcar tracks began being laid and construction began.  As the campaign season grew to a close, a good bulk of construction was complete along Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine.

On the evening of November 5th as streetcar supporters gathered around television sets awaiting the final results, the air was thick and emotions were high.  It looked as if an anti-streetcar supermajority (six) were about to win the nine Council seats, and it was all but assured that Cranley was going to take the Mayoral spot.

And that is precisely what happened.

Without wasting any time, Cranley began laying out the case to cancel the streetcar, to renege on the contracts the City had with all manner of firms, to all but guarantee a loss in the City’s litigation with Duke Energy (to move the power lines below the street – the suit focused on who was responsible for payment), and to give back close to $47 million of Federal money.  For streetcar supporters, this all felt like déjà vu – hearkening back to the MetroMoves days when Kasich so casually told the Obama Administration that their money was “no good here.”

But how did Cranley win?  Why do people hate the streetcar so much?  These are the questions my out-of-town and Cincinnati friends ask.  It all just seemed so strange.  In fact, the weeks following the election carried a fog of confusion & air of frustration for all streetcar supporters.  They felt defeated.

So, how did he win and why do people hate the streetcar so much?

First of all, the frustration felt by our citizens in outlying neighborhoods and many core neighborhoods is quite valid.  Many feel that their corner of Cincinnati has been ignored, that their roads go unpaved, that it takes too long for a police car to arrive when they call.  Every single one of these citizens is justified in their concerns.

Over a decade of structurally imbalanced budgets and wasteful spending, combined with back door meetings & lack of transparency, created a sense of distrust in many who live in Cincinnati.

Combine with this a lack of proper or responsible marketing of the streetcar as far back as 2007, and you get a “gap” in the streetcar narrative.  Compounding this issue was the abhorrent manner in which the streetcar was “sold” to the African American Community.  In short, it was not “sold” to them at all.  Furthermore, having serious discussions about how minority businesses could get secured bonding for investment along the route has still not happened.

So – we have a majority of our citizenry that has been left out of the conversation, another portion of the citizenry that is angry, and poor marketing on behalf of the streetcar project proponents.  And all of this is occurring in a City that is not well known for its ability to move forward on anything without a fight.

This is why John Cranley won.  He filled the gap in the narrative.  He campaigned all over this City telling the African American Community that the streetcar was no good for their neighborhoods, that it would not bring them jobs – he told citizens in the outlying neighborhoods that the streetcar would decimate the City’s operating budget and that it would take longer for police cars to come when they called if the streetcar was built.

Of course, Cranley had no proof of any of this, and instead of offering solutions to all of these problems, he simply pushed the point that Roxanne Qualls and the streetcar would compound them.  But Cranley didn’t need proof as the gap in the narrative was so BIG.

He told people what they needed, not necessarily wanted (big difference in politics), to hear and he won.  In fact, he trounced Qualls.  And what did people need to hear?  They needed to hear what was to blame for their frustrations.  And even though the streetcar’s effect on population growth and resulting tax revenue will help every neighborhood, it easily became the focal point for some Cincinnatian’s anger because of the gap in the narrative.

It all made sense that Cranley went as hard as he did in the days following the election because he felt he had a “mandate” to kill the streetcar, even though only 16% of registered votes in Cincinnati voted for him.  The problem arose when it became clear that it would cost as much (if not more) to cancel the project than to move forward with it.  When this information came to light Cranley simply said he “didn’t believe” the numbers.

The more he pushed, the more irrational he looked.

The first three days in Council Chambers with the new Council & Cranley at the helm were some of the most embarrassing days I have ever lived in this City.  It looked like no one had any idea what was going on.  Ultimately, Council decided to “pause” the streetcar to the tune of $1.25 million to get an independent audit from KPMG weighing costs of cancellation vs. costs of completion.

The audit came back with the same numbers that had already been presented to John Cranley and Council by streetcar project manager, John Deatrick.

After a lot of meetings and dealings, two councilmembers formerly opposed to the project, Charterite Kevin Flynn & Democrat David Mann, came around and voted to continue the project.  This was weeks after Democrat P.G. Sittenfeld’s announcement that he, too, was going to support completion of the project after seeing the numbers.

At the end of the day, the three mentioned above were joined by longtime Democratic streetcar supporters Yvette Simpson, Wendell Young, and Chris Seelbach for the six votes required to disable Cranley from vetoing the ordinance to continue construction.  Those opposed to the project were Republicans Charlie Winburn, Amy Murray, and Independent Christopher Smitherman (it should be noted that Smitherman was Chair of the NAACP for some time, and helped lead the charge to kill the streetcar years ago).

Much of the credit for the streetcar’s victory goes to Believe In Cincinnati, a grassroots organization that arose in the 11th hour to help save the project.  The group organized, gathered signatures for a potential referendum if Cranley got his way, and helped put pressure on Council members who were wavering.  It was truly impressive to watch, and humbling to be a part of the movement.

Is the streetcar the answer to our City’s budgetary woes?  No.  But it is part of the answer to growing our tax base and making us an attractive City in which to live.  It also proves that Cincinnati can accomplish big things and undertake a significant infrastructure project that will put us near the top of the list of modern American cities.  It also proves that we are resilient and won’t quit, even in the face of adversity.

Now, my hope is that this energy in the City remains stable and funneled to other areas that need to be addressed.  The low voter turnout on November 5th, 2013 has proven to be a kick in the pants to many in Cincinnati.  Hundreds (thousands?) of people have woken up to the fact that local government matters most and that you can be heard at the grassroots level.  If you are reading this and are one of those people I say this to you:  Welcome – let me know how to help you get more involved because we need you.

The streetcar battle is finished, but there is much, much more to be done if we are truly serious about taking Cincinnati well into the 21st Century with all of our citizens on board.

By Mike Moroski

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Mike Moroski

Mike Moroski

Mike Moroski has been active in the community for 12 years fighting for issues affecting low-income people, education, homelessness, and affordable housing.  He currently serves as Director of Community Outreach at Lower Price Hill Community School, board member, activist, & educator and has two post-graduate degrees; one in English, and one in Nonprofit Administration.  

 

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