The numbers being tossed around reflect some widely divergent interpretations of the word "cost." But arguing over this aspect is boring. I prefer to focus on the next step: if the streetcar does die, what should the city do instead? My proposal:
1. Begin the Hop on Cincinnati trolley as soon as possible, and mesh the routes with the Metro's One for Fun. And when doing so, charge as much as possible for advertising sponsorships of the vehicles. But give preference to businesses and attractions along the route. And use these funds along with fares to support the operating costs.
2. Begin planning to extend the Hop on Cincinnati concept so that it truly connects with the UC area -- which means reaching all the way to the Zoo and the Clifton gaslight district. Work with UC and Cincinnati Children's to integrate their shuttle bus services into the mix. New vehicles would not be needed -- just cover existing ones with coordinated wraps. These two items will do much to allow people to live the urban life without a car.
3. Offer a My Cincinnati set of perks worth $2,500 for up to 8,000 genuinely new residents to the city (i.e. they do not already pay income tax to the city). Make it a cash card that can be used at any restaurant, grocery or entertainment venue within city borders -- from lunch at Subway to buying Bengals tickets. This would require approximately $20 million to launch. If desired, the city could then commit a portion of the new income taxes generated by the new residents to keep the program going for more new residents. The recirculation of these funds would have direct and potentially ongoing positive impact on the city.
4. Allow existing Cincinnati income tax payers to buy My Cincinnati cards at half price; i.e. they would get matching credits for loading the card up to $1,250.
5. Re-examine an idea dropped by the Strive education organization: creating a fund to give significant scholarships to Cincinnati residents (of at least five years by the time the student begins college) who choose to attend Cincinnati colleges. At a "cost" of $22,000 per student, the city could cut tuition to UC by 50%, Xavier would be less of a discount, Cincinnati State would be almost free. Investing $20 million would cover about 900 students, even more if UC agrees to a discount, even more if private entities also kick in. Make it interesting by adding a choice for graduating students: a three-year residency requirement or, for those who leave town for jobs, a contract agreement to pay the city 3% of their incomes for five years (creating an incentive to stay in town if they can). In return for the discount, the city would get income, property and sales taxes of the graduates and the families that moved in to get this benefit. And chances are, significant percentages of the families and grads will stay in Cincinnati for much longer than five years.
6. Sharply expand existing programs that provide grants and near-zero interest loans for home improvement projects. Consider limiting such projects to those known to increase property values, such as rehabbing kitchens, adding bathrooms, replacing windows. To promote modernity, I would like to see the city cover at least half the costs of installing electric car charging stations as part of this program.
7. Sharply limit tax break deals for new businesses moving into the most attractive real estate in our region, such as the Saks store site in the heart of downtown, and anything near the Banks.
With the possible exception of Idea #5, all of these ideas -- combined -- could be done for less than the $70 million that it would take to finish the streetcar. Even #5 could be done if you dedicate the money it would have cost the city to extend the streetcar to UC. Vastly more people would benefit -- without limiting the activity to one neighborhood -- thus making the public outlay much easier to justify.