» Wavering commitment to this — and similar infrastructure projects around the country — sends the wrong message about the seriousness of public investment in better transport.
Over the past few months, American transportation projects have been canceled at an accelerated rate: From New Jersey to Florida to Wisconsin, rail programs that have been in the making for years have been abandoned because of conservative opposition to expansion in transportation spending at all levels of the federal system.
This movement, which has been grounded in claims of fiscal responsibility, has sent a disappointing message about the commitment of the American public sector to projects it has previously endorsed.
Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) made his mark last year, eliminating state support for a new intercity rail line to connect Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland — despite the fact that the federal government had agreed to pay for all of the project’s construction costs. Now, he has set his sights on undermining the Cincinnati streetcar project, which was set to begin construction after municipal leaders such as Mayor Mark Mallory assembled adequate funding, including $51.8 million from the state, $5 million from regional governments, $66.6 million from the city, and $25 million from the federal government’s Urban Circulator program.
The project, whose first phase would cost $128 million to build and another $3 million a year to operate, would run about 2.5 miles from the banks of the Ohio River, through downtown and Over-the-Rhine, to Uptown and the University of Cincinnati. Though following a well thought-out route to the city’s major in-town destinations, the streetcar nonetheless has been the subject of intense controversy in Ohio’s third-largest city.
Mr. Kasich, who earlier this month announced that he wanted to cut state transit operations funding by 39% over two years, explained his logic by saying that “There’s a new sheriff in town,” according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The streetcar, the governor argued, was an inappropriate use of public resources and thus the state’s $51.8 million involvement should be cut. If this change is approved as expected by a state transportation board on April 12, this would leave a $30 million gap in the project’s initial construction budget. The same board, upon announcing the state commitment just four months ago, rated the project the highest-scoring transportation program in Ohio.
All this was enough to encourage one member of the city council to withdraw his support last week. The fate of the project is up in the air. Without state funds, the city would either have to find more local funding or give up.
Of the several dozen being proposed across the United States, the streetcar project in Cincinnati is one of the most promising because it connects what is one of the country’s most densely built center cities to a major university. It would run through the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, which saw major riots ten years ago but now is being rapidly transformed through building improvements and infill. At the south end of the route, the massive The Banks development is radically altering the connection between Cincinnati and its riverfront through the construction of new stadiums, a park, and hundreds of new apartment units. The streetcar is a great example of orienting transit investments towards communities that are working seriously to increase densities and encourage their inhabitants to choose not to get around by driving.
Mr. Kasich, however, says “We’re not living in Portland,” and for now, he is right.
But whereas Portland grew by 10.3% between 2000 and 2010, reaching a historic high, Cincinnati lost 10.4% of its population, which has declined from more than 500,000 in 1960 to less than 300,000 today. Portland now has a higher residential density than its Ohio counterpart.
Of course Portland’s successes can be attributed to a lot more than its transportation program, which has been enhanced thanks to billions of dollars invested in light rail and streetcar lines. Yet the Oregonian city surely has been aided by an active public sector that has made significant investments in its transportation offerings. Those projects have increased the appeal of that city, making it a better place to live and one that is more attractive to companies that may want to locate there. Can Cincinnati increase its livability while its state government pulls back in the name of austerity?
Whether or not this project is a good investment or not, though, is only half of the question: At this point, the funding for the project had been identified and people had begun making decisions based on the assumption that it would be completed. The same could be said for the intercity rail line planned for Wisconsin, for example, where train maker Talgo built a manufacturing plant and hired employees after getting a state commitment to buy rail cars — only to be told months later that the project had been de-funded.
What message does this send to potential investors in a city like Cincinnati? If a city’s plans for a transportation project, even when fully funded, can be shut down because of the decisions of a new governor, how can anybody make long-term assumptions about where and how to develop? Moreover, why should they invest in a place whose politicians think they can renege on previous commitments?
Update: The Ohio Department of Transportation’s budget request, approved by the State Senate Transportation Committee today, included an omnibus provision that “prohibits state or federal funds appropriated by the state from being used for the Cincinnati streetcar project,” according to All Aboard Ohio. If approved by the full State Senate and House, this would effectively make it impossible to spend state dollars on the program, even if the state transportation board, which approved the funding last year, pushes it forward.
Image above: Downtown Cincinnati, from Flickr user Jere Keys (cc)