Soapdish: The little streetcar that could

Not surprisingly, we here at Soapbox are fervent supporters of the proposed Cincinnati streetcar project. Given such enthusiasm, it should come as no surprise to learn that this particular space has seen at least six separate columns in the past three years devoted to the streetcar—its obstacles, its promises, its fate. Chronicling the streetcar’s trials and tribulations reads like a Greek tragedy at times, with added metaphorical allusions to Lazarus, the mythical Phoenix and any other hackneyed, rise-from-the-ashes type literary clichés you care to throw in the mix.

Now, with last November’s defeat of the latest anti-streetcar ballot initiative, the questions you tend to hear most are: “When is construction going to start?” “When can I ride it?” “What’s happening?”

As the author of the above-mentioned six streetcar columns, I get these questions a lot. And while the answers are not always as concrete and/or readily available as one would hope, there is a something beginning to resemble a light at the end of the tunnel. It is evident that the streetcar’s progress was clearly impeded by the oftentimes vicious opposition, which culminated in the defeat of two anti-streetcar ballot initiatives in 2009 and 2011, not to mention the naked hostility to the project in the hallowed halls of Columbus (e.g. Governor Kasich yanked $54 million in funds previously approved for the state’s highest-ranking transportation project). Nevertheless, while speed bumps have been thrown across the tracks like so many damsels in distress, the project continues to chug on, to further mix the metaphors, like the “little streetcar that could.”

In describing the circuitous path by which the streetcar’s progress is measured, John Schneider, the downtown resident, local businessman and tireless streetcar advocate, is fond of using the phrase “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”  While the cynic in me would respond that one doesn’t run backwards in a marathon, there are clear signs that the stars are beginning to align in a positive fashion. Now, when asked where we are in said “marathon,” Schneider is quick to respond, “Mile 19 out of 26.”

Indeed, in conversations with City Hall streetcar insiders, a measure of cautious optimism has begun to emerge. This past Friday, the Business Courier quoted Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls stating that streetcar construction will start “soon,” and reported that Councilmember Laure Quinlivan indicated the date is dependent on the availability of Ray LaHood, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Given that the streetcar project is the recipient of approximately $35.9 million in federal funds, it would certainly behoove us to accommodate Mr. LaHood. In my discussions with City Hall insiders working on the project, they confirmed that “construction” could conceivably begin within the next 30 to 90 days.

To clarify, however, “construction” is something of a broad term. In this case, the first step is the relocation of existing utilities in the streetcar right of way. To this end, negotiations are ongoing with Duke, Cincinnati Bell and others about relocating their utilities running in the streets of our fair city. While much has been made of the rift between Duke and the city regarding relocation costs, both sides are continuing to engage in productive discussions, with the primary dispute centering around cost-sharing and how far the utilities have to be from the actual streetcar lines (which, in turn, affects the cost). City officials remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached with the utilities.  

In some cases, however, such an agreement will not come quite so easily. The Hamilton County Board of Commissioners has seen fit to kick the streetcar around like a political football. The county, which operates the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), has decided to cut off its nose to spite its face, forbidding the spending of MSD funds for any streetcar-related sewer relocation projects. The irony in this is that the sewer lines along the streetcar route are some of the oldest and most decrepit in the city. By relocating and upgrading their antiquated infrastructure during streetcar construction, the county could save millions in already necessary project costs. Perhaps County Commissioner Chris Monzel, who wants to keep MSD funds out of the picture, saw an opportunity to score some cheap political points with his outlying county constituents, regardless of the practical realities of the deal.

Indeed, anti-streetcar agitators have seen fit to use the sewers as their latest weapon du jour in their endless and increasingly futile crusade. No less than prominent City Hall litigator Chris Finney and his lackeys from C.O.A.S.T. (the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes), sponsors of the defeated anti-streetcar referenda, have recently launched their latest broadside. In a December 29 letter to City Solicitor John Curp, Finney demands that the City Solicitor take action to enjoin the city from proceeding with the streetcar construction based on some vague and amorphous references to a trampling of the county’s “property rights.”  

In all reality, however, it is an ill-conceived attack of dubious legal credibility. While a full discussion of the issue would require an analysis beyond the scope of this column (and, accordingly, give this latest dispute far more credibility than it deserves), suffice to say that, pursuant to a 1968 agreement, the county transferred to the city the actual assets which make up the sewer system running in the city’s streets. The county maintains the right to access the sewers for repairs, maintenance and the like, but there is no absolute property right in the city’s streets. While Finney’s legal challenge will seek to cobble together an indeterminate property right based on notions of common law easements and other assorted theories, the right is simply one of access. The notion that public transit projects can simply be stopped by a utility’s objection is farcical. The fact of the matter is, the various utilities all run in the city’s streets, and by the good graces of the city, not the other way around. If the City Solicitor declines to pursue action, odds are that Finney will then seek to bring a “taxpayer” challenge under the relevant state law, essentially stepping into the shoes of the city, as plaintiff.

Regardless of what remaining arrows Finney et al may have in their quivers, progress continues. Voters placed a vocal pro-streetcar 6-3 majority into City Hall this past November, in the process sweeping out several anti-streetcar members. The city recently announced that they have selected the snazzy new design for the streetcar shelter, while the process of vehicle selection continues in earnest (look for an announcement in the spring as to who will be selected to manufacture the Cincinnati streetcars). Construction will begin at the corner of 12th and Elm in Over the Rhine, hopefully within the next 90 days. From start to finish, the construction should take somewhere between 18 to 24 months.  

There are certainly no guarantees, and opponents have vowed to doggedly continue their efforts to “kill” the streetcar, an oftentimes wearying prospect for those who have ground it out to mile 19 of this “marathon.” Then again, it always makes for a great story. Just 7.22 miles left to go. Get ready to sprint.

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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.