Soapdish: Streetcar deja vu

Ah, fall! Tis election season once again. The crisp snap of the first frost coincides with the germination of an untold number of campaign signs, sprouting from the leaf-covered landscape like so many cold-weather-lovin' weeds. Council candidates, school boards, judges, jailers and the like—all vying for a personal nod from you, the almighty voter, as you ponder the election booth choices.

But it's not just about the people, oh no. In our California-esque, referendum-style, special-interest-fueled, governing-by-ballot-box political climate of today, we also have multiple "Issues" on the November ballot. Running the gamut from collective bargaining rights, to voting requirements, the "Issues" effectively (and ironically) mandate an abdication by our elected officials of the responsibilities for which they were elected, i.e. to govern.  

In the current panoply of referenda facing us this fall, there is probably no issue more divisive to Cincinistas, no issue more emotional or heated, no issue more misinterpreted and mangled, than the anti-rail charter amendment currently known as Issue 48.

What is 48? Well, it is an amendment to our city's constitution, and it states, in a rather draconian manner, the following:

Be it resolved by the people of the City of Cincinnati that a new Article XVI of the Charter is hereby added as follows: Section 1. The City shall not spend or appropriate any money on the design, engineering, construction or operation of a Streetcar System, or any portion thereof. Further, the City shall not incur any indebtedness or contractual obligations for the purpose of financing, designing, engineering, constructing or operating of a Streetcar System, or any portion thereof. Section 2. This Amendment applies from the date it is certified to the Charter, and will continue in effect until December 31, 2020. This Amendment will have no force or effect after December 31, 2020.?Section 3. For Purposes of this Amendment, (i) the term "Streetcar System" means a system of passenger vehicles operated on rails constructed primarily in existing public rights of way, (ii) the term "City" includes without limitation the City, the Manager, the Mayor, the Council, and the City's various boards, commissions, agencies and departments and (iii) the term "money" means any money from any source whatsoever. Section 4. In the event that any provision of this Article XVI is found to be unconstitutional or impermissibly in conflict with state or federal law, only such provision found to be unconstitutional or impermissible will be stricken, and the remainder of this Article XVI will remain in full force and effect.

According to a laudable and exhaustive analysis of Issue 48 performed by the Enquirer in its Sept. 18 edition, Issue 48, according to a majority of legal scholars and election ballot experts, "is written so broadly it could stop other rail projects in the city." Overbroad, aribitrary and ill-conceived. That's what the voters will be facing in November, and, if passed, through the year 2020.

If any of this sounds familiar…well, it is. As the inimitable Yogi Berra would say (cliché alert!), it's "déjà vu all over again." Back in 2009 we had a similar referendum known as Issue 9. The language of 9, however, was less restrictive than what you see above, and did not completely ban all rail projects in the city until the year 2021. Rather, 9 requested that any spending on rail projects be put to a vote in a special election. Back in February 2009, in these very virtual pages, I wrote that Issue 9, or Exhibit A, was "one of the worst examples in recent memory of 'governing by ballot box.' "

Issue 48 is clearly Exhibit B.

Issue 9 was defeated rather resoundingly by a 56-44 margin. In arguing in favor of Issue 9, supporters argued that "we just want the people to have a vote." Well, the people voted, and Issue 9 lost.

Notwithstanding the defeat, just two years later, we find ourselves once again having to confront the same bloodied but unbowed coalition of special interests behind Issue 9. The identity of these special interests, to the extent known, includes an oddly formed cabal, including failed one-term City Council member and former NAACP president Christopher Smitherman, as well as the strident, anti-tax/anti-spending curmudgeons known as COAST. Both Smitherman, who can often be seen on public access channels railing against the streetcar (or, as he would coyly say, "trolley"), as well as COAST, espouse a number of fact-denying, misleading half-truths, lies and empty rhetoric, all designed to scare the general populace into supporting their ill-conceived charter amendment.  

For example, in the Sept. 18 Enquirer article, when asked whether he supports Issue 48, irrespective of the streetcar, Smitherman's evasive response was, "Yes on Issue 48 to STOP the $144 million streetcar." Never mind that the streetcar budget, as currently proposed, is $95 million and fully funded, scaled back from $128 million after Gov. Kasich embarked on his campaign to eviscerate the system back in March of this year (read more here).

Smitherman, however, seems content to arbitrarily add almost $50 million to the budget in order to stir his supporters up into a frothy lather. In a similar vein, reliably crusty ex-Mayor, ex-Congressman and potentially almost-too-real Simpsons character Tom Luken has no qualms in telling anyone who will listen (typically an Enquirer reporter and two or possibly three COAST members) that the proposed streetcar will cost "billions." [Note: Luken once referred to the author in an Enquirer op ed as a "whippersnapper."]

Meanwhile, COAST Treasurer Mark Miller, on the anniversary of 9/11, unconscionably equated the firefighters lost in the terrorist attack with the proposed effect of a streetcar. Seeking to somehow top what would be considered untoppable, he later allowed himself to be tagged on his Facebook page in a photograph of a streetcar photoshopped with young African-American riders brandishing firearms. The destination? "Banks and Freedom Center."

For its legal muscle, Smitherman and COAST rely on Anderson Township resident and attorney Chris Finney. Finney, who wrote the above amendment, was also responsible for the language in Issue 9, not to mention the oft-maligned Article XII, a 1993-era special interest-fueled amendment which prohibited city officials from passing any laws that included sexual orientation as a protected class. Article XII effectively placed Cincinnati in the dark ages for 10 years, created a national embarrassment for the city and caused an estimated $45 million in lost convention business. Thankfully, Cincinnati voters repealed Article XII in 2004, however Finney's costly legacy continues to be forged.  

How do we find ourselves, just two years later, revisiting the same old streetcar issues? Well for one, Smitherman is running for City Council, and the streetcar is a convenient lightning rod around which to rally supporters, regardless of the facts. Indeed, Smitherman used the organizational prowess of the NAACP to collect the signatures this summer in order to get Issue 48 on the ballot.  

This begs the question as to why the NAACP would be opposed to such a project, which benefits its constituency, one which would provide transportation options to those who dearly need it and service some of the poorest sections of the city. Suffice to say, Smitherman has never been one to let the facts get in the way of overheated rhetoric and vitriol. To use one of his favorite pet phrases, that's just "Politics 101." In fact this past summer, Smitherman supporters were observed raiding City Beat boxes and dumping into the trash an issue which was critical of the candidate and his position on 48. Apparently "Politics 101" takes it cues from bare-knuckled, LBJ-meets-Chicago-style political machines.

Regardless of your ultimate interpretation of Issue 48, it's clear that, if passed, the language is so overbroad and ambiguously written that the inevitable result would be costly litigation which a cash-strapped city can ill afford. Obviously, that outcome is the ultimate in ignominious irony, as studies irrefutably prove that the modern streetcar is an economic catalyst, serving to increase economic development, boost tax revenues and attract new residents into the city.

Instead, we'll most likely be spending our dwindling dollars on litigation over the meaning of Issue 48, litigation which benefits….[tah dah!], folks like Chris Finney. Indeed, Finney recently made the news Friday when he pursued Councilmember Laure Quinlivan on what can charitably be referred to as a "frivolous claim" over the use of city computers for campaign purposes. After requiring the city to incur thousands of dollars in expenses, the end result was Quinlivan's writing of a 13-cent check in favor of the city.

These are opponents who would rather mire a city down in expensive and frivolous lawsuits than pursue a progressive agenda designed to make Cincinnati a more attractive, more solvent and more livable city.

In a recent statement on Issue 48, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber had this to say: "The charter amendment would prohibit city spending or appropriating funds for a streetcar system before 2020. The Chamber does not support any measure that eliminates the community's ability to develop transportation or other economic development projects."

To be accurate, it would tie the city's hands until 2021. Such a measure is an overly harsh, irresponsibly broad restriction which would leave Cincinnati in the dust with regard to its peer cities. Even as we speak, approximately 50 cities, including Pittsburgh, Seattle, Tempe, Tampa, Salt Lake City, Indianapolis are all either implementing and/or exploring modern streetcar systems. As with Article XII and Issue 9, Issue 48 would also leave Cincinnati alone in the country as the only city with an amendment of this nature to its city charter.

In the 19th Century, a swaggering Cincinnati was bigger than Chicago, and confidently placed its bet on the riverboats as the commercial path to future prosperity. In so doing, we eschewed investment in our rail infrastructure, Chicago stepped into the breach and the rest is history. Let's not get left behind on the riverbank waiting for the steamboat that will never return. Let's not repeat the mistakes of the past.

No on 48.

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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.