Though there are several referendums being considered today in which transportation plays a major role, two in the Midwest stand out as particularly interesting. Voters in Cincinnati and Northern Indiana will be deciding whether they want rail systems in the future.
Ballot Measure — Rail in Cincinnati
If the NAACP and the right-wing can agree on any one thing, it seems to be a collective dislike for the idea of streetcars in Cincinnati.
Issue 9 would amend the city’s charter to require a new referendum each and every time there is any spending — local, state, or federal — on “right-of-way acquisition or construction of improvements for passenger rail transportation (e.g. a trolley or streetcar) within the city limits.” While streetcars are mentioned directly in the measure as an example of transportation projects that would have to be submitted to voters, the truth is that all rail projects, such as the proposed light rail, commuter rail, and high-speed rail lines illustrated below, would have to be put to public consideration.
Issue 9 will not prevent rail from being constructed. It will simply engender serious delays on any plans that the city wants to advance. From the NAACP’s perspective, support for Issue 9 means opposition to the city’s planned streetcar line, which they argue will reduce standard bus service to the city’s poor black population. From the perspective of the Cincinnati Tea Partiers, rail service is a waste in any shape or form.
The biggest problem with the proposal in the short-term is that it will prevent the city from receiving federal stimulus funds for the streetcar line in the next year, at least before Cincinnati is able to present a project to the discretion of the electorate. A future referendum on transit funding is likely to end in failure, considering the terrible results of the 2002 Metro Moves vote. In the longer-term, Issue 9 would make it nearly impossible to plan major projects for the city because each new idea would have to first be submitted to the voters — meaning that projects that help only small parts of the community will inevitably be shot down, and ideas that would require large (but necessary) expenditures would be defeated in races focusing on waste.
All this is to say: when it comes to transportation planning, perhaps direct democracy isn’t the best approach.
Image above: Re-envision Cincinnati, from CincyStreetcar Blog
Ballot Measure — Northern Indiana Regional Rail District
The Indiana suburbs of Chicago have been considering an investment in new commuter rail lines for several years now, but only this year have the projects and an affiliated tax come up for a vote. The creation of the Northern Indiana Regional Rail District would enforce an extra 0.25% income tax on citizens of the affected jurisdictions and eventually pay for more bus service and an extension of the South Shore Line, which heads directly into Chicago.
Initially the plan was to build two new stub-ends for the South Shore Line, one south to Lowell in Lake County and another southeast to Valparaiso in Porter County, in addition to expanding bus service to LaPorte and St. Joseph Counties. These projects are being advanced by the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. All four jurisdictions were supposed to submit the proposal to voters as per state law; tax increases and affiliated transit improvements would be distributed county-by-county, so if one county didn’t approve the measure, the others would not be affected.
Yet Lake and LaPorte Counties have chosen not to move forward with the referendum because of the costs associated with holding the special election, which will be expensive and likely attract few voters. Even if voters in St. Joseph and Porter County do approve the referendum, then, it is unclear how the rail expansion would play out, since it would require new construction through Lake County. Bus service, though, could be easily improved with new revenue.
Image above: Proposed Northern Indiana Commuter Rail Route Extensions, from Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority