Friday, May 22, 2009

UPDATE: A Local Poison Pill for All Passenger Rail

(Source: White House blog)
One of the more exciting proposals in Ohio today is a passenger rail line, ultimately high-speed, between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, to also include Dayton. It's called the 3C Corridor.

Several months ago, the County Commission unanimously passed a resolution that Cincinnati/Hamilton County be included in that rail line (because occasionally there are rumors that it would simply go between Cleveland and Columbus). And just last month, the Cincinnati-Cleveland corridor was included in the 10 national high-speed rail corridors that have been identified by the federal government for long-term development.

In other words, this looks to be an enormous long-term opportunity for the state, and for our region. In my recent survey, 85%(!) of 300 voters were supportive of the idea, including 68% who were strongly supportive.

Which is why it's sad to see that a political dispute over streetcars in one part of Cincinnati could turn into a political fight that harms this much bigger regional opportunity

As the Enquirer reported today, the petition language circulating to stop streetcars is written incredibly broadly:

"a new Article XVI of the Charter is hereby added as follows: The City, and its various boards and commissions, may not spend any monies for right-of-way acquisition or construction of improvements for passenger rail transportation (e.g., a trolley or streetcar) within the city limits without first submitting the question of approval of such expenditure to a vote of the electorate of the City and receiving a majority affirmative vote for the same."

So even though the public dispute and opposition centers around the streetcar proposal, the language appears to apply much more broadly--including throwing a wrench into this exciting opportunity for a cross-Ohio passenger rail corridor.

Given that we are already concerned about being included as a full participant in the Ohio rail corridor, the last thing we need in making our case is a provision that prohibits the City of Cincinnati from being part of it without a later vote. And practically speaking, as transportation planners at the state and federal level make major decisions about where to invest money, and choose among different priorities and competing regions, such an anti-rail poison pill in the City charter would clearly put our entire region at the bottom of the totem pole.

In other words, we would be voluntarily taking ourselves off the passenger rail map, as 10 other parts of the country (including Northern Ohio) move forward into the 21st century. A decision with decades of ramifications.

There are certainly strong opinions on both sides of the streetcar debate. And those will play out over time, as Councilmembers, citizens and advocates on both sides debate and decide on the best course, what plans might work, and what plans the City can afford, if any.

But let's not let that debate spill over into the much larger issue of state and national passenger rail options, and our region's (or the City's) ability to be part of them.

The current language of the petition risks exactly that.
UPDATE: Kudos to the Cincinnati Beacon for being open-minded (a rare trait in politics) in considering my observation. I think many streetcar opponents will echo their stance once they look closely at the language of this ballot initiative, which (intentionally or not, and completely unnecessarily) encompasses far more than the streetcar issue.


Jeff said...

If Cincinnati is left out of the rail/streetcar projects, I predict a mass exodus of young(er) people from the city, myself included. This is the final straw; this needs to happen in order for me and my wife to want to stay here. I defend downtown to much to family and friends to have this taken away. If this does not happen, OTR will never to see it's full potential and downtown will never "take the next step" as a regional player.

Erin said...

Great, people, keep Cincinnati from doing anything progressive. Ever.

*seething sarcasm, FYI*

Dave said...

Erin... Trains are not progressive, they are "regressive" Ya know, those are the things we used before planes and cars.

Now.. we will be able to either
Buy a round trip ticket to Chicago for $150 on the train, get a ride to the station to leave, wait in line like at the airport, get there rent a car or cab to get around all weekend $80, pay for a hotel because the return trip is the next day ($150) (total $400+)

Or I can go to my drive way, spend $40 in gas, and be there in 5 hours, pay $20 to park and come back the same day..

Paul W. said...

The street car will do nothing but shuffle people around downtown. In memphis that streetcar runs in a ghost town, it didn't create anything.

The street car will transport as many people as a bus, but be restricted to a single route and cost 100 times as much.

Buses take the exact same routes as the street cars everyday... there is no NEED for a street car, it's a waste of money. What makes people think there will be that much more demand just because it's a street car?

In SanFran the Street cars are culture, you can't just put them in here and expect it to be an attraction.


Mike said...

Rail is important to connect us to other regions and bring commerce in and out of Cincinnati.

The issues of trolley and high speed rail are very separate. The idea behind the trolley is gimmicky and with all of the budget cuts that need to happen it seems foolish to spend dollars on a trolley right now.

If this language is already set then we should bring this to the public's attention in a big way and squash it, then expect the politicians to do the right thing by waiting on the trolley until money is available. Really, a light rail to the airport would be money better spent anyway.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Pepper, would city money really need to be spent on that major project? If so, please tell us how much.

Nothing is preventing the county from spending money on it. Maybe the county should pay for it since the county gets Metro service that is paid for by city residents for free.


Anonymous said...

Any public transportation project is a step in the right direction. We can't make the same mistake we did 90 years ago with the abandonded subway project...

Anonymous said...

Sorry Dave I think you are a little off base. Rails are far from "regressive", they are essential having a successful urban environment. It is very sad to see so many anti-urban solutions offered to solve urban problems. You wouldn't need to "rent a car or cab" in Chicago, they have a rail system. In a successful urban area cabs and cars are far less inefficient then walking or buses or rails.

Paul, the streetcar without a doubt will "shuffle" people around downtown, thats the idea! I know you are new to town so maybe you don't know its history. The basin had extremely extensive streetcar routes, and when they were replaced by buses in the exact same routes, they never received close to the ridership of the streetcar.

The point is amending the charter disrupts the system. Charter government is supposed to run on a business model, and I'm not sure how a business continues to grow without investing in infrastructure.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, we need passenger rail because it is so wildly successful everywhere else. Anyone ever heard of Amtrak? Amtrak exists only because of the billions of dollars they get from the taxpayers in the form of government subsidies. The average taxpayer subsidy per Amtrak rider is $100, or 40 percent of the total per-passenger cost.

And in spite of all this, we want to create a mini-Amtrak in Ohio in the name of being "progressive". Does anyone have any doubt that the taxpayers will soon be footing the bill for yet another failure?

Anonymous said...

Dave 9:56 is so way off the mark regarding trains being regressive! In Europe, trains are a major part of the complete public transport network. Utilizing the airlines inter-continental is not only expensive, it's time consuming, as it is in the States.

One can leave London in the early morning & make Paris by lunchtime, even with the time change. Another can board the night train leaving Amsterdam & wake up in Vienna. All at sensible fares that everyday people can afford.

Not only is this city & state behind the times, this entire country is in sad shape with its paltry public transport offerings. Without a doubt, the airlines have Congress in their pockets.

Leaving the area seems more inviting each day. Cincinnati-Hamilton County has gone from bad to worse. Such a pity.

Anonymous said...


Sorry, but you are misleading voters. The ordinance seems to involve city funds, NOT county, state or federal funds.

Bait and switch won't work, David !


The Dean of Cincinnati said...

Tyrone Yates disagrees.

David Pepper said...


I have read my friend Tyrone Yates's paragraph. Respectfully, the point is not that the City Charter change would legally preempt state and federal law or their funding decisions about what to do with state and federal money exclusively, it's that for projects where you're COMPETING to gain an enormous benefit that regions across the country also want, the local jurisdiction has to participate in a meaningful way. Or it's simply not in the game, and is highly unlikely to be included.

I don't know of any major projects that the federal and state governments simply swoop in to do and pay for 100% of the work (even if they pay for the lion's share). The local government also must take part meaningfully, or the other resources don't follow. And here Cincinnati would be forbidden from spending one dime on it.

Stated differently, Cincinnati would be asking the state and federal government for state and federal resources and the enormous benefit of being included on a high-speed rail line, and then say--oh, by the way, our Charter forbids us from spending one dime on passenger rail, including acquiring right of way, but we still want all the benefits of the rail line, thank you. When other regions eagerly want to be part of a passenger rail future, and will all be competing to be part, such a proposal won't go very far.

And just to be clear, this is all still in the balance--we are actually at a point where we're begging and pleading to be a part of the Ohio line. Our worry has been that it would only go to Columbus, and not here (or that we would be some distant phase 2, well into the future). That's why we passed s resolution several months ago calling to be included, and sent it to the State. So far, this advocacy is working, but it's certainly not guaranteed. A statement that the major city involved is legally barred from participating doesn't help the cause.

Dean, my sense is a lot of people (including many who oppose streetcars) want us to be part of a future high-speed rail line in the midwest and in Ohio. So my point in raising this was to point out that the current petition is written (unnecessarily) in a way that clearly impacts the latter.

Maybe you should ask the drafters of the language why they included ALL passenger rail and not just the "streetcars" or "trolley" that they oppose.

David Pepper said...

Anon 8:36 -- the point is that the federal and state government would rarely if ever support a project if the local jurisdiction itself doesn't put a dime into it.

Especially when you have other local jurisdictions from around the country competing for the same funds, willing to help make the projects happen.

Anonymous said...

David Pepper said..."Anon 8:36 -- the point is that the federal and state government would rarely if ever support a project if the local jurisdiction itself doesn't put a dime into it. Especially when you have other local jurisdictions from around the country competing for the same funds, willing to help make the projects happen. May 23, 2009 8:22 AM"

With all due respect, the county can participate all it wants. The city can't stop eminent domain.

A regional effort should be on the regional dime, not the city.

The city already gives city tax dollars to regional corporations through corporate welfare.

Make the high speed rail pick-up in Sharonville, they have under utilized rail yards.

The citizens can vote on using their tax dollars regardless.


David Pepper said...

I agree with you--if the citizens of Cincinnati want the end-point of the high speed rail to be Sharonville and not Cincinnati, then voting for this would help get the job done.

Citizens for Truth said...

Sorry David, but this charter only applies to city dollars. Not state or federal dollars. And it doesn't outright ban city funds, it only requires that the citizens have approved it first.

David Pepper said...

Anon 3:00 pm -- please read my 6:12 post. Basically, the way most projects go, if there isn't one dime of city funds in something, the chances of getting the benefit of state and federal dollars are next to impossible. (especially when you're competing against other jurisdictions).

As for funding being allowed after an affirmative citizen vote, think about it. As other communities eagerly move full speed ahead with the federal and state governments to be part of high-speed rail corridors like those proposed, do you think Cincinnati will convince those governments to commit here if they have to wait for a regular referendum on every proposed local expenditure that is part of the project?

And do you think the federal and state governments will vote to budget (in advance) major and scarce resources to a City (among many competing cities) if months or years later, that City’s very participation is subject to a vote that could veto the whole project?

It’s a competitive world out there. Often, federal and state governments are trying to figure out how to choose 10 priority areas out of 100 possibilities, and the hardest thing to do is pare down the list. As proposed, this Charter Change just gave the easiest reason imagineable not to include Cincinnati in future plans or allocations, to the benefit of other parts of the state and country.

Like I said, if this is about an up or down vote on the streetcar, have that vote. But there’s no reason to have written the language to apply to every form of passenger rail transportation that exists.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Pepper I'm pleasantly surprised how much impact your posts are making. Thanks for making a commitment to keeping a dialogue going with the community!

Anonymous said...

If what you say about the change in city charter is true, and I don't believe it is, but let's say you are right. No federal project can take place without local support. The petition language says the voters have to approve the funding first. Why is it such a horrible thing to get citizen's approval before they spend any of it? We will ultimately have to pay the bill in some way through taxes anyway. Your argument seems like a case of government knows best.

Citizens for Truth said...

Ok David, let's go along with your contention, for a second, that getting voter approval for an imminent project is going to crater the whole deal.

Since when do these projects happen at the last minute? We have elections every year, usually at least two.

If the city knows it's going to be applying in the near future for a rail grant that requires voter approval, how hard is it for the city to put the question on the ballot and get the Yes vote?

Example: Mallory wants to apply for light rail funding in the 2011 budget. He finds light rail requires voter approval. Mallory simply needs to put a light rail question on the Nov 2009 or primary 2010 budget.

But oh no, that would mean voters get to have input and we sure can't have that!

Mark Miller said...

Poison, you say?!?
Checking with the citizens before spending THEIR money is poisonous?
What happened to government of, by, and for the people?

You're right. This is about much more than a stupid streetcar. It's about who's in charge. And when politicians start bitching about how the little people are getting in the way of their grand plans, they have forsaken democracy for tyranny.

You still haven't explained how voting on something equals blocking it. The way I see it, "voting" only equals "blocking" if you know ahead of time that the people will vote no. And if the people don't want something to begin with, how is it right for politicians to shove it down the peoples' throats against their will? That's the political equivalent of rape.

If we're serious about our city being competitive with other regions, then our elected leaders need to focus on playing team ball. Politicians are NOT masters barking orders to citizen/slaves. They are supposed to be first among equals, providing leadership to guide collective action. That means sharing the long range goal with the team, being honest about the necessary sacrifices, and equitably distributing the rewards.

City leaders, knowing voters would not approve a streetcar, conspired to force it upon them. The voters, unwilling to be ravaged, are in the process of responding with a Charter amendment to strip city leaders of final authority on passenger rail projects, requiring a public vote instead. They have demonstrated they can’t be trusted with that authority, so the people will have to exercise it directly.

Sorry if the City’s screw-up throws a wrench in the 3C schedule. But the solution is not for the citizens to walk away from their rights. City leaders can fix the root cause of this problem anytime they want to; perhaps you should take up the matter with them. If that’s not politically feasible, then a pre-emptive vote, as suggested elsewhere in these comments, is probably your best bet. In fact, it should be more persuasive to whomever you’re begging from, because it represents the ultimate authority of the people.

Meanwhile the Charter Amendment is written as narrowly as it can be. Early in the process, we were ridiculed over terminology for using "trolley" instead of "streetcar". So I studied rail nomenclature thoroughly and discovered there are no clear-cut distinctions between streetcars, trolleys, trams, light rail, etc. Run the proposed vehicle through part of our existing tunnels, and it can be called a subway. Cross the bridge, and it can be called an interurban railway. To avoid this sort of treachery, we’re all stuck with "passenger rail improvements."

David Pepper said...

Thanks for clarifying that this will indeed "throw a wrench" in the 3C possibility, and that it's about "way more" than the streetcar. That's important for voters to know.

I hope you'll be clear about that as you gather petitions and convince people to change the Charter, because right now it's only being talked about as if it's an anti-streetcar petition. (And if it was only that, I wouldn't say a word about it).

But to be consistent with your principles, shouldn't there be a citizen vote before all highway and road improvements too? There are a lot more dollars spent on that every year locally. You didn't see fit to include that in your petition language. Or do you want citizen votes on just one type of transportation, but not another. Such an inconsistent treatment would reveal far more about your transportation agenda than your asserted (but inconsistently applied) principle about citizen rights.

Coleman said...

Mark Miller: You need to read up on what a "representative democracy" is. Additionally, using the phrase "stupid streetcar" in the opening of your argument really does help illustrate how much real critical thinking you have made on the subject. Thanks for letting us know it is emotional for you.

As for calling it "the City's screw-up", I think the point here is either the local NAACP chapter's screw-up or bait-and-switch. I have run into numerous people referring to it as "the trolley petition". It is also billed as such on COAST's website,, and the Cincinnati NAACP chapter's website.

However, I am pretty convinced, from the players involved (such as COAST, Charles Winburn, etc...) that they will use this as yet another tool in their never-ending battle against expanded passenger rail transit of any kind within the city limits. They have made their positions clear on this issue. The COAST-aligned "Alternatives for Light Rail Transit" helped succeed in turning the public opinion against the Metro Moves 2002 plan, by running a TV ad right before the vote falsely stating that the FTA gave the plan negative marks (a fact the organization was later found guilty of. Oh well, they got punished, but the deed was done and the issue was defeated. So, really, they still one. I would not put it past these organizers to use yet another underhanded tactic (selling a charter tool to undermine rail transit off as an "anti-trolley amendment"). In fact, I would bet my money on it. This initiative gives COAST and others the tool that they need to use the exact same tactics that were employed in 2002 to intentionally misrepresent evidence and misreport information for the purpose of influencing public opinion.

The question is: Where does Smitherman stand on this one, and where does the Cincinnati NAACP stand now? Today's Cincinnati chapter is not the same chapter as 2002. I hear many people citing their position in 2002 as supporting evidence that the chapter still endorses a light rail plan, but I cannot accept that. Many positions change in six years, and I think that the public deserves a truthful and unambiguous account of where the actors stand on the issues that can be affected by this initiative. I don't feel that I have gotten that from the petitioners. I feel that I get a much more objective representation of the issues from the city's streetcar info site, and by searching for related info on the city council record.

Much of the content of the press releases from the Cincinnati NAACP have been questionable. For example, his letter to the President claimed the streetcar was a pet project of council-member Chris Bortz. Additionally, he's referred to it as the "$200 Million Trolley Project", repeatedly, yet the price tag for the phase I and phase I-A portions has never been reported to be over $185 Million. Both of these statements do not come from a source who seems to be interested in merely "educating" the public.

Quim said...

A light hearted article on the follies of government by ballot initiatives.

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