Soapdish: Take Up Arms, Cincinnati Under Attack!

Attention dear Soapbox readers: we hereby interrupt our carefully cultivated content of innovation, sustainability, diversity, talent, unicorns and all things cutting edge and wonderful to bring you the following important message - Cincinnati is under attack!

Yes, that's right…attack. But this attack comes not from the far reaches of the galaxy nor the shadowy terrorist cells of abroad. No this attack originates in the cozy confines of our capitol city of Columbus, with an able assist from our regional suburban "partners" to the north.

In just the past week, our recently elected governor, John Kasich, executed a naked, two-tiered power grab that would make even Machiavelli blush. While yes, the ostensible target was the Cincinnati streetcar project (and we'll get to that later), anyone who cares a whit about Cincinnati should be outraged at what occurred in Columbus last Wednesday, regardless of your respective position on the streetcar.

Let's recap, briefly, the recent spate of unpleasantries. Governor Kasich, under the guise of his "new sheriff in town" persona, has been making noise in recent weeks about his extreme distaste for the streetcar project. He telegraphed, in not-so-subtle terms, that the project would not be receiving state funding through the state's TRAC program. This is despite the facts that the streetcar received the highest rating of any of the TRAC projects and that $15 million of the funding was awarded last year but remains unspent pending the required Federal approvals.

By the way, just a word about TRAC - this is a state board which was established to DE-politicize how state transportation projects are awarded. In the past, pork barrel transportation projects were the domain of shady influence peddling and lobbyist largesse. By employing an objective, multi-factor ranking mechanism, TRAC was intended to provide an objective, merit-based process by which projects were funded. Kasich has a well documented distaste for such transparency, and one of his first acts in office was to appoint Jerry Wray, a former asphalt industry lobbyist, as the head of the Ohio Department of Transportation. The days of influence peddling, pork barrels and lobbying largesse are here again!

Taking their cues from the new, self-proclaimed "sheriff," the cowed ODOT staff last week revealed their TRAC recommendations. In a room filled with Cincinnati streetcar supporters who caravanned up for the occasion to the visible discomfort of several of the TRAC board members, the TRAC staff recommended gutting the top rated project of almost $37 million in previously recommended funding, and $15 million in previously AWARDED funding. According to one attendee, the presentation was "akin to major surgery without anesthesia." Moreover, 82% of the total $98 million in cuts came from the Cincinnati region.

To add insult to injury, the staff recommended that the $15 million previously awarded to the Cincinnati streetcar project be redirected to a Canton bus project, and that two highway projects in Kasich's district be added to the list of recommended funding. The cited rationale for such a wholesale evisceration of the highest ranking TRAC project and redirecting it to lesser ranked projects was the rather amorphous notion of "fiscal balancing." While no doubt some "balancing" is in fact necessary, the idea that the Cincinnati streetcar and the entire region in general should bear the brunt of such cuts defies logic. It should also be noted that the ODOT staff recommended that the means by which TRAC ranks projects be restructured in order to ensure that projects like the streetcar will no longer rise to the top. Unbelieveable.

Oh, and it bears mentioning that the TRAC board voted unanimously in favor of the streetcar project just three months ago.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to many, a first term State Senator from Springboro introduced an amendment to the $7 billion state transportation bill that states that "No state or federal funds may be encumbered, transferred or spent pursuant to this or any other appropriations act for the Cincinnati Streetcar Project." Sen. Shannon Jones, the author of the amendment, was also the sponsor of the highly polarizing Ohio SB 5. In reference to her amendment, Jones stated that Cincinnati needs to "face up to reality" about the prospects of the "stalled" streetcar project.

It's interesting how we can go from the state's highest rated, overfunded transportation project to DOA in just 24 hours. Not to mention the fact that a Business Courier survey released Friday shows that a whopping 73% of 1,500 total respondents favor building the Cincinnati streetcar. All of which may explain why the actions of Kasich, Jones, Wray et al. seem almost frenetic in nature, and, according to some streetcar supporters, reek of desperation and weakness rather than strength.

Unfortunately, however, the silence in Cincinnati from elected officials to business leaders on down about this issue has been rather alarming. Not exactly putting their cards on the table, a city spokesperson informed me last week that "the City Administration is disappointed in the TRAC meeting [Wednesday]. We continue to believe the streetcar project, as a first step in to mass rail transportation, will bring money and jobs into the local economy. A return of $3 for every $1 spent will go a long way to help fund other city services. There are obviously a lot of moving parts going on right now as it relates to this project. We are continuing to follow them and evaluate all options for the streetcar project with each development." 

Ken Prendergast, the leader of rail advocacy group All Aboard Ohio, articulated for me his frustration in a recent email, noting that "This is just crazy. I don't understand why Ohio hates trains, transit and cities so much. I've never seen such ignorant, vicious hatred in all my life." Equally alarming is the precedent that such an abuse of power will mean for Cincinnati's future. As Chief Soapbox Instigator Eric Avner queried on Facebook, "is 'regionalism' a fallacy when a suburban legislator can prohibit state and federal funding for a city development initiative? This is a much bigger issue than about a streetcar."

Perhaps that silence can be attributed in part to our increasingly irrelevant local paper of record, the Enquirer. In a series of increasingly inept articles culminating with a mystifying and intellectually challenged Sunday op-ed piece, the Enquirer has virtually ignored the wholesale power grab in Columbus, seeking instead to tap dance on the empty grave of a not-yet-dead streetcar project. In an editorial that defied the boundaries of logic, the Enquirer predictably piggybacked on Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune's cannibalistic vulture-grab to use the state streetcar money to instead begin building decks over Fort Washington Way. While, in an ideal world, such decks would indeed be a fine addition to our downtown, one has to question the sanity of anyone who would propose that decks are a better way to increase economic development, attract new residents, connect our city's two largest employment centers and repopulate our city's urban core and amazing cache of empty, historic structures. Yet the Enquirer, with what one would assume is a straight face, made this very argument on Sunday. Baffling.

So amidst all of the rancor, can a silver lining be found? Well, with $100 million in funding, the possibility of a slightly scaled down version of the streetcar is certainly a possibility. Additionally, while the results of the recent decennial census were disappointing overall, the results for tracts served by the proposed streetcar were overwhelmingly positive: Downtown North gained 32%; Downtown South 29%; UC 26%; OTR NE 9.6%; OTR SE 5.4% and Vine Street Hill 2.6%. Out of the entire city, there were only twelve census tracts within the city that grew, and the streetcar route comprises 50% of them. WCPO recently reported that 100% of 3CDC's renovated apartments in OTR have been rented, all of which are on or near the streetcar route.

This is all good news, and while the prospects of a lengthy legal battle over the TRAC awards and state amendment may be distasteful to many, this abuse of power and process must not be allowed to stand. The precedent here will have far-reaching ramifications beyond the streetcar.  

The TRAC board votes on final project approval April 12 in Columbus. If you care about the future of Cincinnati, it would behoove you to be there.  

Streetcar supporters can learn more here.

Photography by Scott Beseler.
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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.