Soapdish: On the right track

Last Friday bore witness to (pardon the giddy hyperbole) one of the most momentous groundbreakings in the modern history of Cincinnati. As an energized and enthusiastic crowd looked on, Mayor Mallory, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and other assorted city dignitaries modeled their commemorative, gold spray-painted shovels and ill-fitting hardhats for the assembled media, all in a prelude to the groundbreaking ceremony for the Cincinnati streetcar.

Supporters milled about both inside of and out front of Memorial Hill and on Elm Street, continually pinching themselves in one of those “is this really happening?” moments. Inside, a rapt house listened to speeches by, among others, Secretary LaHood, the mayor and “Mister Streetcar” (per the Mayor) John Schneider, all in an ascending prelude to the ceremony outside. The crowd inside was so packed in that at least another 200 or so waited outdoors.

As for protesters, there appeared to be one, lone serape-and-sombrero-clad gentleman who is a familiar sight in Over the Rhine, typically railing against 3CDC, the streetcar and similar “agents of change” in the city. Unsurprisingly, a local tv news crew saw fit to give him airtime.

Nevertheless, longtime supporters and advocates took advantage of the gloriously incongruous mid-February sunshine and warmth to play hooky and kick off a long weekend. The groundbreaking ceremonies were followed by a somewhat impromptu and boisterous pub crawl, first at the Taste of Belgium Bistro in Over the Rhine and, later, at Arnold’s downtown. 

Not coincidentally, both Arnold’s and Taste of Belgium are located on, or very close to, the streetcar route. Indeed, Taste of Belgium owner Jean-Francois Flechet located his gastro-bistro at 12th and Vine precisely because of its location on the streetcar route.

After so much blood, sweat and electoral tears over the past four years, it is ironic to heave a collective and cathartic sigh of relief given how much work is yet to come in the next 24 months. Nevertheless, the prevailing sentiment was a mixture of relief as well as unchecked celebration, a combination which could only have been forged in the parochial crucible that is Cincinnati politics. The dogged and visceral opposition to the project; the mistruths, misrepresentation and lies spewing forth on talk radio and local media; the seemingly anti-city emotions emanating from the outliers—all of it seemed to melt away under the soothing rays of the midday sun.

Not even Duke Energy’s recent hissy fit over utility location costs could dampen the spirits. Moreover, it has become clear in the past 10 days or so that Duke has greatly overplayed its bluff in this particular game of high-stakes chicken. As some may recall, Duke has argued that the utilities must be relocated at least eight feet from the streetcar operating envelope, a distance which the city, and every other modern streetcar system in the country, would claim is more than excessive.

Duke’s demands would increase the estimated costs of the system by approximately $13 million. The city, in its response, has essentially stated that it will agree to pay for that utility relocation which is reasonable and necessary based on best practices for every other modern streetcar system around the country. Even in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Duke is headquartered, the utilities are only three feet from the rail bed. Moreover, after Duke called off talks with the city, interested onlookers Googled hundreds of images online showing modern streetcar tracks located three feet or less from utility manhole covers.

Nevertheless, as the Mayor recently announced at a special session of council, he will now be personally involved in the negotiations with Duke. Hopefully this will put an end to the posturing and unrealistic demands on Duke’s part.

But this was not a day for negotiations. As the commemorative shovels crunched their way underneath the six meticulously pre-loosened cobblestones on Elm Street, onlookers could not help but envision the day when modern streetcars would traverse the street, past the glittering, newly renovated Washington Park, past the glittering, newly renovated Music Hall, dropping off patrons and residents alike at the popular institutions and the glittering, renovated new apartments, condominiums and single-family homes lining the route. The progress was positively palpable.

Photos by Carla Frederico
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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.