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28 February 2009

The Great Streetcar Debate

Recently I attended a debate on streetcars in Cincinnati. Streetcars have been heavily debated in Cinci and Columbus for years. Cleveland has the Rapid, which is a train that runs from the airport to downtown and east past Shaker Square as well as to University Circle. Pittsburgh has the T, which connects communities in the South Hills to downtown.

Cincinnati currently has an abandoned underground subway tunnel which wasn't completed due to extreme inflation after World War I. Now that the economic stimulus plan has been passed by Congress and signed by President Obama, the debate about completion of a rail transit system in the city is underway. The proposed streetcar in Cinci will not be underground, where the subway was proposed, but above ground. The underground tunnel is slated to hold new sewer lines. Following are arguments for and against the streetcar in Cincinnati, as well as some of my notes on the topic (in blue).

Arguments Against the Streetcar:

-All electricity in Cincinnati currently comes from West Virginia coal, which isn't currently "clean coal technology." So, would it really be sustainable? Perhaps THIS is the best argument against streetcars in Cincinnati. If the energy supply is going to become more sustainable then the streetcar would be a viable solution.

-Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) are usually used...the speaker felt that TIFs inappropriately distribute funds to private developers. TIFs have proponents and opponents...generally falling upon liberal/conservative lines. They don't always work, but shouldn't be a concern with Streetcars as it's a given that feasible development will occur near stations.

-Streetcars aren't transportation, they are treated as development plans. Is the encouragement of development in urban areas such a bad thing?

-Annual defecits increase due to subsidizing for lack of ticket revenues (ridership revenues are generally set lower than operation costs). This is a legitimate concern, but what is wrong with providing affordable transportation? Tax revenues from new development will overcompensate for operational cost subsidies.

-Railed systems are much less flexible than buses. Rails laid in between two hubs of activity (downtown and Clifton) will not need to move for several years, as these two hubs contain schools, jobs, businesses and cultural amenities that will not leave anytime soon.

-Gentrification may occur in areas near the streetcar, which hurts lower income residents. Gentrification is good in certain doses. The City can maintain or provide enough affordable units by amending the zoning code.

Arguments For the Streetcar:

-36% of jobs in the Cincinnati Metro are located downtown and 20% of jobs in the Cincinnati Metro are located around the University of Cincinnati, making the Streetcar available to at least 56% of the region's workforce as well as residents who live in the area. More than half of the region's workers/residents will have access to rail transit options in their daily lives.

-Market Rate housing could be built downtown if decent transit available. Many people are inhibited to move downtown due to lack of parking. Studies show that access to rail transit in dense areas allow households to go from two to one car.

-Parking demands downtown make projects/activities there difficult and the streetcar would alleviate some of these hassles. Access to visable rail transit allows residents another option. Cars can be parked elsewhere and destinations can be accessed through rail transit and walking.

-Development typically occurs and is concentrated near permanent transit stations/stops. Concentrated development is a natural product of rail transit. Stations/stops are opportunities for service businesses in particular.

I am a proponent of Streetcars. They are not necessarily the entire solution, but they are one link in the chain of multimodal transportation.

Similarly the Ohio Hub, an ODOT study of high speed rail trains between Cleveland/Columbus/Dayton and Cincinnati (just to start) is in the planning stages and construction can start as soon as 2010. An innercity rail system in Cincinnati will eventually be part of a statewide service allowing Ohioans to travel across state or a few blocks away without the stress of buying gas or looking for a parking space.


  1. Thanks for posting this. As a Cincinnati resident and someone who has closely followed the debate for the past 2 years, I think you did a great job summarizing the points.

    I know there was talk at one point about the City purchasing green energy credit. Does anybody know more about this? I think the point about coal-powered electricity is a good point, and I'd really like it if the city demonstrated its commitment to sustainable development.

  2. Purchasing green energy credits would be a great idea...though I not seen anything about it for the Streetcar proposal. The fact that you've heard something is good...and I'm hopeful that it is something the City and OKI have pondered.

  3. "Clean coal" is pure green washing. You either put the waste from coal in the air or in the ground. No way around that.

    I haven't seen any evidence that this type of streetcar is really part of a multi-modal transit solution. Transit is a by-product of the "economic development" they supposedly create.

  4. To Anonymous 3/31: There actually are plans that include the streetcar as one facet of a multi-modal transit solution in the region. See OKI's 2030 Regional Transportation Plan here:
    Be warned, the full document is way more information than you are probably looking for (16 chapters). Hell, even the executive summary is dense. In the exec. summary, improvements to the bus service are on p. 28, transit hubs (which are multi-modal by definition) are on p. 29, regional rail on p. 30, and the streetcar on p. 31, freight transportation on p. 33, bike/pedestrian transportation on p.34, and even more alternatives on p.35. Sounds pretty multi-modal to me. The brief goes on to explain how these modes of transportation will be technologically integrated, and the collective economic development of this plan.
    Again, this is just the brief. More details are available in their full document (at your own peril).
    Because it is so dense, if anyone sees something interesting in there, let me know.

  5. According to the OH DOT:
    "In Cincinnati, the state will invest a total of $23.5 million in stimulus funds to assist in development of the Riverfront Banks Project and the nearby Intermodal Transit Center."