A Streetcar Named Renewal: If We Build it, Will They Come?

Cincinnati is abuzz.

“We are in an era of opportunity for the city,” says Meg Olberding, Assistant to the City Manager.  “We’ve invested in buildings.  We’ve invested in workforce…[but] we haven’t invested in a way to connect all the investments.”  

Word on the street is the proposed streetcar system could tie these investments together.

But let’s face it: as nice as this sounds, Cincinnati doesn’t always get along with public projects. 

The well-worn story goes something like this:

A new master plan is unveiled with the best of intentions.  Then, like clockwork, budget problems surface, squabbling sets in, and the whole project grinds to a halt. 

Wash, rinse, repeat.  The cycle continues and a city can become jaded. 

But enough tear-in-our-beer pessimistic ranting.  It’s time to open up to new possibilities.

“It’s not like we’re talking about something that’s crazy,” says City Manager Milton Dohoney.  “We’re talking about something that will allow us to remain competitive.  And that’s why I’m for it.”

He’s got a point.  Here’s why:

Today the streetcar is taking urban America by storm.  There are 46 cities cashing in on the streetcar craze, making it “not a competitive advantage, but a competitive necessity,” Olberding says.  Streetcar supporters who understand this dilemma have been amping up their rallying cry. 

A public streetcar forum was held at the University of Cincinnati on June 10, followed by grassroots fundraising events – replete with hard hitting Q&A sessions and lots of elbow rubbing. 

These affairs have sought to clarify what a streetcar is and isn’t.

Streetcars are powered by electric, via thin, overhead lines.  They run on rails in the streets and flow with traffic in special lanes.  As opposed to the nostalgic trolley look, Cincinnati is opting for a clean modern style.  Despite misconceptions, a streetcar is not just another form of transit, connecting hot spots, nor is it a mere joy ride.  It’s a bit of both; a one-two punch.

The streetcar “more revolves around economic development, than it does around transit,” supporter Andy Chirch says.  “It’s essentially a moving sidewalk…a pleasurable experience…It absolutely will attract more people downtown.”

Dohoney agrees.  “Streetcars [will] help to stimulate development because it will be operating 18 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year” in under developed areas.  “That means more jobs, more investment and helping to stabilize several of our neighborhoods.” 

Another misconception: streetcars are glorified taxis, or buses.  Why fix it if it ain’t broke?

Chirch has this to say, “A bus line is merely “red paint on a telephone pole, or a little aluminum sign.  When you put down streetcar rails, you’re actually making a commitment… something psychological happens.” 

Experience shows, once this switch is flipped, the streetcar draws people and development like a magnet.

And perhaps the biggest misconception: all funding must come from the city, for which we shall pay dearly.


In fact, city officials and grassroots fundraisers are busy courting private, state and federal donors to help foot the bill for this $182 million project.  The city will dish out $60 million, but has decided against instituting a sales tax. 

To put this in perspective, Dohoney says, “we invested $40 million-plus in the Convention Center, $40 million-plus in Fountain Square…[and] we’re talking about a $600-800 million dollar development on the waterfront.”

Ultimately, it’s a long-term investment with the promise of a pot of gold waiting on the other side.  Other cities who have laid down tracks are reaping rewards to the tune of 14:1.

For estimated running costs, look to Portland, close in size to Cincinnati, whose 2007 streetcar electric bill was a mere $180,000.

Alongside Portland, Cincinnati invited representatives from Seattle, Charlotte and Little Rock – all thriving streetcar cities – to speak at the June 10 public forum.

On a tour along Cincinnati’s proposed streetcar route, the four delegates were enthusiastic about downtown’s untapped potential.   

In Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati’s quintessential diamond in the rough, the streetcar has become the locus of cooperation for development groups who were previously at odds.

“The streetcar has come out to be the number one issue that we all can agree is going to be a critical component to the future growth of this neighborhood,” says Brian Tiffany, President of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce.

Together, this unlikely coalition is drafting a new civic blueprint, and writing a letter of support for the streetcar.

“We fully understand that it’s critical to connect downtown with uptown,” Tiffany says.  “Everyone else needs to understand that Over-the-Rhine is that connector.”

Yet, the streetcar goes beyond making Cincinnati convenient and connected.  We’ve also got to be hip.  

Numerous studies “show that young professionals who become tomorrow’s CEOs…are choosing place over job,” Olberding says.  “Streetcars help create the vibe that attracts them."  Cincinnati needs to woo this footloose urban class to keep its global mojo.

“The global economy…We’re trying to find our place in that,” says Myrita Craig, streetcar PR campaigner and Membership Director for Enjoy the Arts.  “Will [the streetcar] be the thing that does it?  No.  But it’s a great step in a direction to start this conversation.” 

Indeed.  It’s time to think big.

“Cincinnati used to compare itself to London, to Paris, to Vienna,” Chirch says.  But “somehow in the last twenty to thirty years, we started comparing ourselves to Indianapolis, and Lexington, and Pittsburgh…If we frame this conversation in terms of where we fit relative to other cities our size, we’ve already lost.”

But not if we frame this conversation in larger terms. 

From this perspective, Cincinnati’s still very much in the race. 

And while a streetcar system may not be the panacea for all of Cincinnati’s ills, we're convinced it can at least connect some dots. 

Let’s start talking.


Connect the Dots

Map provided by the City of Cincinnati

Andrew Chirch photo by Scott Beseler

Street car images provided by John Schneider

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