Soapdish: Streetcar opponents just can't seem to 'move on'

“Move on.”

It’s a great bumper sticker sentiment — short, quick and to the point. It even launched a progressive online grassroots organization of more than 8 million members.

In mid-December 2013, I was in the wings as a chastened Mayor John Cranley announced at a City Hall press conference, “We’re gonna have a streetcar.”  

He would use the phrase “move on” multiple times, noting that “we’re going to make the best out of a bad situation. ... I’m gonna move on, I promise you that. ... I will work hard to move on (and), as I tell my (4-year-old) son when he doesn’t get his way, it’s time to move on.”

The sentiment expressed by the Mayor and Councilman Kevin Flynn at that press conference was clearly to “move on” and “make the streetcar a success.”

So here we are now, a year and a half later with Cincinnati Streetcar rails running from the river to the hillsides, and the level of disreputable discourse, manipulative misrepresentations and heated rhetoric by streetcar opponents — particular those at City Hall — has hit a fever pitch in recent weeks.

Homewood/Hampton Suites ribbon-cutting ceremony at the gorgeously renovated old Enquirer Building? Check. Mayor bashes the streetcar.

Presentation on new Open Data Cincinnati portal? Check. Mayor bashes the streetcar.

These instances are typically followed with a quick retreat to the cozy confines of AM talk radio, where the factually deficient rhetoric can really ramp up, unchallenged and encouraged by the sycophantic yammerings of an ignorant radio host intent on inflating ratings at the expense of the truth.

I would call it “bread and circus,” offering us a straw man (or streetcar) to bash while the Powers That Be distract us from other issues, but it would be a misnomer. The city of Cincinnati is on the rise, economic development up and down the streetcar route and beyond is booming, our neighborhoods are resurgent and the riverfront is reborn — yet, for whatever reason, the streetcar-as-political-pinata remains the go-to rabble-rousing tool for Mayor Cranley and Councilmen Christopher Smitherman and Charlie Winburn, often resulting in flat-out lies in the process of getting the WLW frequent-dialing masses whipped up into a frothy anti-city lather.

Smitherman, in the vanguard of the disinformation front, went on 55KRC April 24 stating that health centers, the arts and safety services are in direct competition financially with streetcar operations. He then went on Bill Cunningham’s weekly WLW show for another star streetcar-bashing turn (listen here; Smitherman is at the 20-minute mark).

Meanwhile, an inflammatory comment on WKRC’s Facebook page in response to a streetcar-related article encouraged people to pick up their pitchforks and “find the names, addresses and phone #’s of last 2 city councils. Local 12 ... publish them ... and lets (sic) have some huge fires!!! ... Where are they now?”

Unchallenged, Smitherman proceeded to spin the lie that this threat was directed at him personally by streetcar supporters. A compliant Cunningham lapped up the story like a kitty with a warm saucer of milk. Unfortunately for their persecution-complex purposes, the author of the statement, Larry Meeks of Hamilton, is an avowed streetcar opponent, as even a perfunctory fact check would reveal.

But let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good streetcar-bashing opportunity.

This level of discourse from certain of our elected officials is pretty much par for the course — the end product being that a Hamilton resident is threatening to burn down the homes of elected officials.

It’s time to move on.

What I find most troubling in all this is that we’re talking about elected leaders of our city encouraging the unproductive dialogue. City leaders continue to undermine and undercut a public infrastructure project that will benefit the entire city, not just those that live directly on the line.  

I’ve said it many times before: The streetcar is the rising tide that lifts all 52 neighborhood boats as opposed to an either/or proposition.

The population of Cincinnati peaked in 1950, when the dismantling of the streetcar system began. The last streetcar in service was April 29, 1951 — an ironic anniversary this week — and since that time Cincinnati has seen a long, slow inexorable decline in population.

Until now, that is. Curiously enough, we have stopped and slightly reversed the decline at the exact point in time we also decided to resurrect the streetcar.

If downtown and Over-the-Rhine benefit, the rest of the city benefits as well in the form of new residents, an enhanced progressive reputation, 21st Century transit options, increased economic development, a rebuilt tax base and increased tax revenues. Yet there are certain politicians in office who seek to pit the city’s core against its outliers, a Balkanization within our city limits, for political gain.

The Mayor’s plan to sock Over-the-Rhine residents with another revamped parking permit fee and increased rates mines this rhetoric even further in an “us versus them” mentality that reeks of political score-settling rather than actual unifying leadership.

While a parking permit plan is a good start, it doesn’t have to be the most expensive (by far) in the country. And why is it only directed at Over-the-Rhine residents? Doesn’t anyone think the Central Business District would benefit from the streetcar bisecting their district? Is the streetcar going to to be restricted to neighborhood residents only? Will the neighborhood retain 100 percent of the benefits since OTR residents are shouldering a disproportionate share of the permit plan?

Of course not. And if anyone can’t recognize the value to our entire city in having a streetcar running from our riverfront parks, underground parking universe and stadia sites through the heart of our city, past Horseshoe Casino, through the entertainment complex that is Over-the-Rhine, past Washington Park and Music Hall to our city’s rapidly emerging brewery attractions and back again, then they’re just being willfully ignorant.

One absurd anti-streetcar argument generally goes something like this: More streetcars mean less police, firefighters and pothole paving.

Winburn raised this pet false dichotomy/Hobson’s choice in a recent Enquirer Op Ed piece entitled “782 Million Reasons to Kill the Streetcar,” positing that we need to choose between the streetcar versus, say, $209 million for street rehabilitation, including filling potholes.

Ah, yes, potholes! That insidious pox on our streets, bedeviling Cincinnati with their evil emergence each and every Spring since long before you and I were born.

Despite our presence in a middle-of-the-nation, freeze/thaw climate, one should never underestimate the populism of potholes, an easy tool for political hacks everywhere to bash the streetcar when it proves convenient. Yet wishing away potholes is like wishing away mosquitoes: Absent the construction of a new BioDome, they are essentially a fact of life.

And when we in Cincinnati are competing against peer cities, looking to attract the best and brightest talent to our fair shores, touting $209 million spent on potholes is not our best selling point. It’s treading water, if that. It’s keeping the street lights working. It’s small-minded, parochial thinking of the type that will doom a once great Midwestern city to permanent flyover status.

We’re better than that.

Our elected officials, particular our Mayor, should be touting the benefits of our city, not undercutting them at every turn. Like it or not, the streetcar is something that will attract young, educated professionals to the city. Like it or not, the streetcar is being built. These facts are undeniable.  

So by taking pot(hole) shots at the streetcar, these elected officials are basically saying we don’t want young, educated professionals to move to our city. They’re undercutting a project they previously pledged they’d “make the best out of.”

And for what gain?

It’s an unnecessary politics of division, so much so that you would think we’re in a campaign cycle. But we’re not.

Back at the December 2013 press conference, amidst all of the homilies about “moving on,” Mayor Cranley observed that he was pretty good at cocktail parties and receptions and would do what he could to raise money for the streetcar system from Cincinnati’s private business community. Moving on to make the streetcar a success.

Last week on WLW, amidst the furor of a manufactured tempest-in-a-teapot controversy about the streetcar possibly inconveniencing some downtown festival events, the Mayor had this to say (listen here; Cranley is at the 42-minute mark):
  • "Oktoberfest will stay on Fifth street if that’s what they intend to do;”
  • "There's no way I am going to stand by and let the streetcar stop, move or inconvenience the events;”
  • "If these events want the streetcar operating, well great. ... But if the police chief and city manager decide it’s not safe, the solution is to run the streetcar in the Over-the-Rhine piece;”
  • "There was a culture that I inherited here that thought the streetcar was more important than anything else;”
  • "I'm a proud runner. ... I ran the Flying Pig Marathon in 2002. Although I'm not in shape anymore;”
  • "I'm not going to make the Flying Pig Marathon have to give up…;”
  • "The Chamber of Commerce was being told that they have to move;”
  • "I'm sending letters out to all these major events. ... We value your event more than we value the streetcar;”
  • "The culture we inherited here is that the streetcar is the end-all be-all and that is the only thing that matters in this city.”
Well, OK then. If this is part of Mayor Cranley’s strategy to raise money from the private sector, to encourage them to contribute to the streetcar system’s success, it seems destined to failure. If this is “moving on,” it seems to be moving backwards.

And that is just the point. Opponents of the streetcar seem hell bent on a self-fulfilling prophecy to sabotage the project, be it by shortening the hours or frequency, squelching expansion up the hill to Uptown, fear-mongering or what have you.  

It’s a mystifying discourse from those elected to lead our city.

Unofficially appointed “Voice of Reason” Vice Mayor David Mann, at a recent City Hall session, characterized the negative dialogue like this: “Sometimes I think some of us will not be happy unless the streetcar fails ... and therefore, at opportune moments, will do all that they can to contribute to a popular belief that it is failing or the wheels are off. The wheels are not off.”

I wish everyone would take a cue from Mann, who is rapidly morphing into the role of reasoned, wizened elder statesman on the issue. The time for divisiveness has passed, he says. The challenge now is making this a success.

Our elected officials should be doing everything they can to make this first phase of the streetcar a success, and that includes doing everything to get up the hill to connect our two largest employment centers as well as the University of Cincinnati. That’s how you “move on.”

Our Mayor should be fulfilling his pledge to raise money from the private sector and corporate interests. Cincinnati deserves better than the type of pandering rhetoric we’ve seen in recent weeks. It’s time, finally, to move on.

[Note: Several weeks ago I asked the Mayor’s office if Cranley would like to sit down to sit down to discuss the topic of this column to give his side of the story or to answer email questions regarding same. I received no response.]

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.