Cincinnati Streetcar

Losing State Support, Cincinnati’s Streetcar Project in Peril

» 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, saysWe’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)

Cincinnati Dallas Fort Worth New Orleans Phoenix Streetcar

Streetcar Projects Advance Nationwide Thanks to Local Initiative

» In spite of questions over whether the federal streetcar program has a future and the death of a project in Fort Worth, local dollars are distributed to build new links in Cincinnati, Dallas, New Orleans, and Tempe.

Last week’s decision by officials in Fort Worth, Texas to halt planning work on the city’s streetcar line struck a blow to the nation’s nascent collection of modern streetcar lines, one of the Obama Administration’s biggest transportation policy moves. Local leaders backed down from a $25 million grant received from the federal government earlier this year, arguing that the city wasn’t ready to invest its own money in a project that some suggested shouldn’t be funded by taxpayers.

The decision reinforced the commonly heard argument that the federal government is encouraging a form of transportation that is not fully accepted by people on the ground. It is certainly true that Fort Worth was far from prepared to accept the grant from Washington when it was first distributed, as the city had yet to specify a route or identify a definite local funding source.

The disappointing news from Cowtown, however, was the exception to the rule this month as Cincinnati, Dallas, New Orleans, and Tempe worked to establish their own local revenue streams for major streetcar projects.

In Cincinnati, Mayor Mark Mallory celebrated the decision by Ohio’s Transportation Review Advisory Council to award the city’s planned streetcar line $35 million in state funds. After receiving a federal Urban Circulator grant this summer and dedicating corporate and local dollars to the line, Cincinnati is now ready to break ground on the first phase next year. Dallas, which won a $23 million TIGER grant for a new downtown streetcar link in February and later received more funding from Washington for an extension to its McKinney Avenue historic streetcar, now has $10.8 million more from the Regional Transportation Council to spend on both projects. And New Orleans, whose Loyola Avenue connection is fully funded by the federal government, is considering redirecting local dollars to build another line down Rampart Street. Millions of dollars in new development is already being directed to sites adjacent to proposed streetcar stops in New Orleans.

The funds once earmarked for Fort Worth are likely to be redistributed by the U.S. Department of Transportation to another more interested city like Washington, D.C., which has a major streetcar system planned but which has yet to receive any federal funds for its construction.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix metropolitan planning organization has agreed to move a 2.6-mile streetcar planned for Tempe to the region’s long-term transportation plan. Though the group will ask the federal government to cover half the project’s costs — likely to add up to about $160 million — this represents a concrete commitment to spend local dollars on the project. Ten years ago, the only city in the country that would have agreed to such a major engagement was Portland. Other cities that have received U.S. funds and which are likely to move forward with their own projects over the next few years include Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, and Tucson.

Together, this news represents a strong endorsement for streetcar projects at the local level: Interest in streetcar construction extends beyond the boundaries of the nation’s capital. The mode’s expansion into metropolitan areas nationwide is genuinely supported by a whole bevy of citizens and leaders from coast to coast, willing to put up their own funds for projects that they think will improve their communities’ development patterns and mobility options.

Nevertheless, future federal support for streetcar projects has been put into question by the arrival of a new Congress that clearly does not share the Obama Administration’s enthusiasm for this particular mode of transportation. New House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has supported expanding the federal pot of funds for transportation, but he has also argued for increasing Congressional oversight over executive agencies such as the Department of Transportation. The grant programs that have contributed mightily to the build-up of streetcar networks — TIGER, Small Starts, and Urban Circulators — currently give the Secretary of Transportation (Ray LaHood) decision-making powers over which projects to fund. Mr. Mica has implied that he thinks such decisions should be made by legislators; would a new Republican majority in the house choose to spend that money on streetcars?

Democrats have picked as their ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV), someone who, to put matters mildly, has not made much of an effort to demonstrate his support for alternative transportation. He doesn’t seem likely to be a big voice in favor of devoting more of Washington’s money to streetcars.

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the Congress has any interest in making room for further discretionary grant programs at all, considering the complete lack of consensus on how to fund maintenance of the nation’s infrastructure, let alone expansions in the form of streetcars.

Nonetheless, the clear commitments given by some localities to their own streetcar programs indicate that there is a future for such transportation in the United States, even if Washington takes its hands off.

Cincinnati Streetcar Urbanism

Readying Streetcar Plans, Cincinnati Considers Reducing Parking Requirements

» With municipal and state funds aligned for transit project, a more livable downtown on its way.

Cincinnati is thinking seriously about how to make its proposed streetcar system a vital element of a growing downtown, not simply a trophy piece to parade around in demonstration of its progress. The city’s Planning Commission has taken a major step in that direction by signaling its support last week to significantly reducing parking requirements in areas within two blocks of future streetcar stops. The city council will have to approve the decision for the zoning code to be altered.

If it goes through with the change, Cincinnati will be demonstrating its support for a new type of urban living and promoting a model for other cities looking into funding inner-city transit systems like streetcars.

With $86.5 million currently reserved for the project and $25 million more likely to be awarded to it by the federal government later this month, Ohio’s southern metropolis is virtually assured to have a streetcar system up and running in the next three years. Cincinnati hopes that the streetcar will help spur regeneration of the communities along the line, including the riverfront area, downtown, and Over the Rhine, three areas that have significant potential thanks to beautiful existing building stock intermixed with vacant plots.

Yet a streetcar in itself will provide no guarantee that those neighborhoods will see redevelopment. Transit may encourage some people to build new housing and retail, but it certainly compels no one to do so. Just as problematic, even if the new construction comes, there is no promise from future residents or office users that they will actually use the streetcars to get around; the vehicles could be underused if implemented poorly.

That’s why the city’s decision to reduce parking minimums would be a reassuring sign that local planners understand the necessity of designing neighborhoods to encourage transit use. Today, the city requires one to two parking spaces per housing unit, even for apartment buildings constructed right downtown. The new law, if approved as likely later this year, will halve those requirements in all new construction within 600 feet of streetcar stations, even reducing them to nil in some cases for buildings with six or fewer units.

As the Cincinnati Streetcar Blog points out, this change may have the positive effect of reducing the cost of new development in Cincinnati by allowing builders to avoid building underground garages or acquiring adjacent sites for surface parking. This will reduce not only the initial investment necessary to construct in neighborhoods near the streetcar but also the cost of individual purchasing or renting, making it more likely that there will be a market for new housing in the area.

In turn, by reducing the number of parking spaces per unit, the city is encouraging people who live in downtown areas to use transit to get around — and they’ll be getting a high-quality service through the center city with the new streetcar, so that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Though some may argue that Cincinnati could have gone a step further and eliminated all parking minimums to areas near the streetcar, the initial line is short and won’t even reach the University of Cincinnati north of downtown; if and when the system is expanded, the city council may want to reevaluate the use of parking minimums at all along this corridor.

What seems likely is that by making it more difficult for people to park their cars when they decide to live in apartments along the line, they will also be more likely to take advantage of the streetcar system, take advantage of nearby retail, and generally lead a walking life. Such communities are more likely to be self-sufficient in the long-term because of support for local shops and restaurants, and they will contribute to Cincinnati’s clear interest in developing for itself the image of being an “urban” city. This is a net positive for a place that is investing a large amount of local funds in this project.

Other cities planning new modern streetcar systems — Detroit, Dallas, Tucson, and Washington, for instance, have lines mostly funded — should examine Cincinnati’s proposed zoning changes and evaluate whether they could enact similar alterations in their municipal parking requirements to encourage around the new transit lines the creation of inner-city neighborhoods in which automobile use comes second to walking and alternative transportation.

Image above: Downtown Cincinnati, from Flickr user Sonnett

Cincinnati Streetcar

Cincinnati Approves Funding for Streetcar, Increasing Likelihood of Federal Commitment

» Initial downtown-Over the Rhine line could begin construction later this year, but Cincinnati faces stiff competition from cities across the country fighting for limited federal funds.

Over the past week, Cincinnati has assembled $86.5 million for its new rail project, leaving it about $40 million away from constructing the first modern streetcar in the Midwest. The infusion of funds from municipal, state, and private sources brings it closer to receiving federal aid for the program. The streetcar was endorsed by voters last fall when they reelected pro-transit Mayor Mark Mallory and simultaneously rejected a local group’s call to block all funding for rail projects in the city.

In approving $64 million in bonds and $2.6 million in direct grants, the city council boosted Cincinnati’s competitiveness for U.S. transit funding dramatically. After the council’s action, Ohio’s Department of Transportation chipped in $15 million; the OKI Regional Council of Governments approved $4 million. Duke Energy, a major local employer, has already pledged $3.5 million to the project as part of a lawsuit settlement.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials have stated repeatedly that the government will give preference to cities that have allocated non-federal funds to transportation projects. The Ohio city has applied for one of the government’s $25 million urban circulator grants, planned for release next month. It will also apply for a TIGER discretionary transportation grant during the summer and may enter its project into the Small Starts capital funding process.

Cincinnati, lacking local funds for the streetcar project until this week, had its $60 million request for a slice of the first phase of the DOT’s TIGER grants refused in February. Dallas, Detroit, New Orleans, Portland, and Tucson, all of which have committed local funding, received federal dollars for their streetcar lines in that process. Among cities that have yet to receive grants from Washington, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Seattle, West Sacramento, and the District of Columbia all have made inroads in assembling revenue from non-federal sources, making them likely candidates for U.S. aid.

Cincinnati’s $128 million project, which would connect the Banks riverfront development with the Uptown district and the University of Cincinnati, now joins that select group.

The proposed streetcar line is expected to attract about daily 4,600 riders, not impossible considering it will run directly through the heart of downtown and its almost 100,000 jobs. The corridor’s preliminary terminus — at the southern extent of the University of Cincinnati — is likely to be a large passenger generator, as is the increasingly gentrifying Over the Rhine neighborhood just north of downtown. The Banks, at the southern end of the route, is a one-billion-dollar redevelopment of former industrial land along the Ohio River that already includes a museum and two stadiums; once it is finished in 2018, it will feature a major park, hundreds of housing units and thousands of square feet of office space.

The area is currently home to a transit center, but it is lightly used except during sports events.

Though downtown Cincinnati is growing, it is not entirely developed; 92 acres there are still used for parking, and plenty of potential building sites are vacant. The streetcar is projected to produce $4 million in additional annual tax revenues because of the new construction it spurs.

If the city isn’t able to assemble all of the necessary funding immediately, it may eliminate the connection to Uptown in the first phase and reduce construction costs to $102 million, though that action would severely limit the system’s effectiveness by eliminating service to the thousands of students at the university.

Nevertheless, thanks to a dedicated mayor and a willing city council, Cincinnati has responded to the federal government’s instructions to allocate local funds to the streetcar project; other cities could learn from its example. The DOT now has a responsibility to follow through with a grant later this year.

Cincinnati Elections Indiana

Ballot Measures Force Commuters to Evaluate Transit Projects First-Hand

» Second in a series of three articles on today’s elections. The first reviewed governor’s races; the third considered mayoral contests.

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

Update: Voters roundly rejected the ballot measure, providing a boost to streetcar advocates. Transit proponent Mark Mallory wins a second term in the mayor’s seat.

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.

Re-Envision Cincinnati

Image above: Re-envision Cincinnati, from CincyStreetcar Blog

Ballot Measure — Northern Indiana Regional Rail District

Update: The measure is overwhelmingly rejected in both counties where it’s considered. No chance for these rail extensions in the near future.

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.Northern Indiana Transit District Proposed Service Map

Image above: Proposed Northern Indiana Commuter Rail Route Extensions, from Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority