Soapdish: A Streetcar Named Desire... or a Road to Nowhere?

In recent months, an ostensibly unlikely and incongruous alliance has surfaced in opposition to the proposed Cincinnati streetcar project.  The group consists primarily of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP, the Green Party, Libertarians and those stridently crusty anti-tax curmudgeons known as C.O.A.S.T.  This anti-streetcar cabal has specialized in a type of rhetoric-heavy/fact-lite speechifying which emphasizes some of the Paleolithic style backward-looking thinking which Cincinnati is so desperately trying to put in the rear view mirror.  Moreover, their ill-conceived petition to force a vote on this issue is Exhibit A in one of the worst examples in recent memory of "governing by ballot box." 

Although Cincinnati's recent progress in and around downtown, the Banks and Over-the-Rhine, has led many to believe that it's no longer "business as usual (i.e. same old Cincinnati)," the fact of the matter is that there remains an entrenched slug of citizenry who smugly refuse to acknowledge recent progress, resorting instead to a reflexive snort of "I'll believe it when I see it," yet repeatedly refusing to remove their blinders.  This type of willful ignorance provides a veritable tabula rasa for the anti-streetcar coalition to project their arguments.

While your loyal Soapdish is not looking to inject itself directly into the standard issue pro/con streetcar debate (see links at the end for all the relevant information), one recent comment by notoriously outspoken NAACP firebrand Christopher Smitherman set off a few alarm bells.  Specifically, in a somewhat poorly composed letter to our newly elected President, Smitherman opined that "we need to focus on bread-and-butter projects such as repairing sidewalks, medians, potholes; or expanding driving lanes on Interstates 71 and 75 to reduce traffic congestion... [sic]"  Visionary stuff indeed.  Aside and apart from the misguided and fallacious argument that you can't have both streetcars as well as, um... sidewalks and pothole repairs, the argument in favor of adding lanes to interstates as opposed to a streetcar system really raised my hackles.

Ignoring the fundamental factor that there is an obvious apples and oranges flaw in positing a "streetcars or interstates" ultimatum, let's explore this one a little further, shall we, just for fun.  There is a valuable point of reference and context that needs to be clarified, both in monetary terms as well as the overall image we wish to project as a city.

Let's start with the argument, espoused by Mr. Smitherman supra, that adding a lane to a freeway, say I-75 for example, is more important than a streetcar system connecting our two principal employment centers, linking the riverfront and stadia district with downtown, Over-the-Rhine, the University of Cincinnati, Pill Hill and the Zoo.  It should be noted that the proposed Mill Creek Expressway/I-75 project will essentially add one single lane of freeway in both directions of I-75 between the Western Hills Viaduct and Paddock Road, while also revamping on/off ramps, and will cost an estimated $642.5 million. That's an extra lane of freeway for 7.9 miles, plus revamping interchanges.  That's an important number just to keep things in perspective when assessing the cost/benefits of a streetcar system. In addition to the $642.5 million Mill Creek Expressway project, the Through the Valley project will engage in an additional widening exercise from Paddock to I-275 at the cost of an additional $149 million (at least).  Checking the abacus, that gives us a total price tag of around $800 million to basically add a few lanes to a relatively short stretch of I-75.  Yay progress!  These extra freeway lanes and spiffily reconfigured on/off ramps will most assuredly catapult Cincinnati past Austin, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and other supposedly more desirable growth cities.

While an additional lane on the interstate is indeed an impressive feat of engineering, civic pride and…um, concrete pouring, I don't mean to rain on the cloverleaf, however studies have consistently shown that adding capacity to freeways merely leads to more drivers on the freeway.  A particularly apt quote comes from the widely respected, Orlando-based, professional traffic engineer Walter Kulash, who has observed that "[w]idening roads to solve traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity."  Driving this point home, consider the fact that forward thinking cities have actually been deconstructing parts of freeways. In Cincinnati, we have supposed leaders who believe the future is to add even more lanes to existing freeways.  Beautiful.

While I realize that funding for streetcars and interstates involve markedly different issues and sources, the current estimated cost for Phase I of the streetcar is $102 million (connecting the Banks and stadia with downtown, Findlay Market and Over-the-Rhine).  The University, Uptown and Zoo loops add an additional $83 million, for a grand total of $185 million (and there's no limit on where the expansion can go from there, both in terms of future streetcar lines as well as a feed-in with light rail).  Coincidentally enough, if the full stretch to the zoo and back were implemented, it would be a route of roughly 7.9 miles, the same stretch of widening on I-75.

So we have critics carping on the profligacy of spending $185 million versus a whopping $800 million for freeway widening.  Why is it that highway construction in this country simply gets a free pass…like a necessary evil?  The rabble rousers can wave the pitchforks all day over $180 million for streetcars ("oh, the humanity….the outrage!"), but when someone writes a check for $800 million in freeway widenings nobody bats an eye?  [don't answer that—rhetorical question]  Just from a purely gut reaction, what would ultimately be more impressive in raising the profile of Cincinnati in comparison to its peer cities? Put yourself in the position of a first time visitor/tourist.  Does anyone drive through Atlanta on I-75 and think "I am really impressed by the number of lanes they have"?  Really?

Moreover, and not to get all bollixed up in the formulas and equations and stuff [insert eye glazing here], but some pretty detailed studies on the impact of the streetcars project a benefit-to-cost ratio of 2.7:1, compared to only 1.15:1 for the I-75 project.  If you want to crunch the empirical data, go to this link for more in-depth analysis.

If Cincinnatians are truly serious about moving the city forward and positioning this city as a desirable and attractive place for families, young professionals, the creative class (and pretty much everyone in between), then everyone needs to get behind the streetcar proposal. If you want to cling to a fading image of a post-industrial rust belt relic, then by all means, let's widen the freeways at the expense of streetcars. 

Again, it bears repeating--$800 million for a wider freeway; $185 million for streetcars running from the river to UC to the hospitals to the zoo, connecting the city's two major employment centers as well as its largest university.  It's all about perspective.  Get on board folks, before the anti-streetcar posse pulls up the rails and points us squarely on the ever-widening and congested road to obsolescence.

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Photography by Scott Beseler
Streetcar tracks on Elm, in front of Music Hall
Vine Street, vintage postcard, courtesy Cincinnati Library
5th and Walnut, vintage postcard, courtesy Cincinnati Library
Music Hall
Portland streetcar

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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.