Streetcars Hit Major Bump In The Road

So a diverse coalition of groups led by the NAACP want to put the streetcar on the ballot.

The NAACP recently launched a petition drive to place an issue on the November ballot that would amend the city’s charter to prevent Cincinnati officials from spending money on the streetcar project without first getting approval from city voters.

I definitely appreciate the sentiment. When the same group of people wanted to put the jail tax on the ballot, to let the people decide, I wholeheartedly agreed because I did not support the jail tax. I voted to put it on the ballot, and when it was, I voted against it (both times). But this time, I find myself on the other side of the coin.

I have quoted lots of evidence in support of streetcars on this blog already. The NAACP's main objection seems to be that there are better uses for the money.

Smitherman believes the money could be better spent elsewhere, such as in neighborhood business districts. Streetcar systems are a risky gamble that have failed in some cities, he says, and Cincinnati’s mostly would benefit people who own property along the proposed route and developers like Towne Properties, which is owned by Bortz’s family.

To be sure, it's a risk, and there are many other ways to spend the money. But let's say we take the $100 million required to build the first phase of the streetcar. The city has 52 neighborhood councils. We could give each neighborhood nearly $2 million dollars - a vast increase in their current dole - and it would certainly be put to good use. But the streetcar is projected to return $1.4 billion dollars in investment, investment that means new residents, new businesses, and higher payroll tax. Big picture here.

Also, the fact that the issue is for support of a charter amendment is a bit weird. To me - and I'm no lawyer - it's as if Congress passes an amendment to the constitution outlawing Amtrak.

In any case, let me clearly state my opinion: if this issue gets on the ballot, the streetcar proposal will fail.

Because while I believe that people are good-intentioned, the masses are dumb. The majority of people who even bother to vote will not even know about all the issues they will vote on until they are in the voting booth. Which means we will have a repeat of the kind of vote that put two stadiums on the riverfront, and of course a repeat of the vote that doomed the light rail initiative in 2002. (BTW, had the light rail initiative passed in 2002, we would have had running streetcars for the past two years already.) If it goes to the ballot, streetcars will not become a reality for at least another decade. And the NAACP has a very good record with getting issues on the ballot.

The streetcar is not a transportation plan. It is a development plan. The point of the streetcar is not to get people where they need to go. It's to get people to stay. It's to get people to live, work, and stay where we want them to stay, namely, in the city. I believe it's a distinction easily lost.

Also see UrbanCincy's strong reaction to the NAACP petition.

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