But if business leaders actually require a light rail project in Cincinnati to meet the standards they would apply in their own companies for deciding whether to move forward with a major expenditure, there may yet be hope.
Sadly, however, I've seen this sort of herd mentality before, and it's remarkably difficult to stop. So I fully expect this region to fail to invest properly in improving its anemic -- but generally well-run -- bus system in favor of extremely silly and wasteful light rail. It will be a debacle so extreme that people will forget about the streetcar folly and ignore the apparently not-so-well-learned lessons from the stadium calamity. And with a new editorial endorsing light rail, the Enquirer will lead the charge -- until it "investigates" the controversy, criticizes the project, then flip-flops to endorse it again when a handful of taxpayer-exploiting real estate speculators quietly tells the puny little paper to get out of the way.
Cynical? Yes. But only from hard-earned experience. There are, after all, some winners in the streetcar thing. They're just not the taxpaying public stuck with the bill. Here's what the pseudo-progressive, downtown-obsessed city "leaders" will utterly fail to do:
1. Make a business-worthy study of actual demand for light rail, a study that actually queries the home-owning suburban residents all the way into Butler and Warren counties. I can live with the results of such a study, even if it proves me wrong in my strong belief that demand for light rail is extremely weak in this town. But can any study that casts doubt on demand actually get the "leaders" around here to say "no."? I bet not.
2. Make an honest effort to ask whether the general public considers light rail a top priority for spending their money, ask whether they will support paying higher taxes for the project, or even present a forthright estimation of the actual costs. The Enquirer certainly was unwilling to face up to the massive, looming light rail cost issue in its latest editorial.
3. Dump the "sexy" light rail fantasy in favor a far more achievable, far more affordable, far more useful, and far more effective large-scale expansion of METRO into a real regional bus system. The reality is that this entire political movement to demand that state and federal governments put more tax money into "alternative" modes of transit is exactly that -- political. There's a real -- but small -- special interest group of people who advocate hard for a car-free lifestyle, and like many other small groups they want the majority to subsidize their life choices. The rest of us need to remember that this is a culture war laced with political hype that has everything to do with winning influence and nothing to do with doing what makes sense.
4. Realize the pathetic and weak nature of the economic world that would exist if the trends rail-advocates believe in actually were accurate. Imagine an America where every two-car family living in an urban area (urbanized areas actually include most suburbs, btw) downshifted to just one car. This giant failure of middle-class earning power will be papered over by the exaggerated claim that kids don't like driving anymore. Surely someone in power realizes how many jobs would be destroyed if demand for personal vehicles in the US actually declines by half? Because if you think light rail expansion involves as many jobs as the auto industry, you missed Econ 101. If you believe humans would be better off if cars didn't exist, you probably also believe the world would be better off without people. And that's more than a little self-destructive.
So here's what should happen, but isn't likely:
Extending bus lines into ALL our suburbs along our EXISTING major road corridors makes sense. Other local governments can and should be committing just as much to supporting bus systems as Cincinnati currently does. If that one thing happened -- and it won't -- there would be little difficulty in making public transport available to anyone who needs or wants it. But the rail advocates will never, ever, ever agree to this.
For a 2-million-person region like Greater Cincinnati, Rapid Bus Transit makes the most sense. Not only is it vastly cheaper than light rail, but it can get done faster AND it can go everywhere our highways go and then some. Therefore, it would serve people where they choose to live -- and would NOT force them to relocate according to the wishes of urban "planners."
The elephant in the living room in this discussion is the uncomfortable fact that living in Cincinnati with a car works, and works quite well. Even with the traffic jams we have, getting around town here is a piece of cake compared to the megacities of Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco, etc. This town just doesn't need light rail in the way that cities do when they are three to 10 times bigger than us. For us, light rail is a vanity project pursued solely because some people believe rail transit equals modernity and Cincinnati should not be left behind.
But if a real, live human being in, say, Colerain Township really wants the ability to ride a bus to work, and be able to work almost anywhere in town, they have a chance of doing so with BRT. But that same person will likely be retired or dead before light rail gets built here -- and THEN the light rail "system" that does get built will be extremely unlikely to reach, say, Colerain Township.
Understand this: IF, IF, IF light rail gets built here, the first line WILL go along I-71. Maybe it will reach Kings Island. Maybe it will cross the river and reach the airport. Maybe it will only go from I-275 to downtown. And folks, that's not only not good enough, it's wildly unfair.
Just as it has been ridiculous from the very beginning of the debate, to expect people in Sayler Park and Mount Washington to chip in just as much as any city resident for a downtown streetcar that offers zero use to them, so will it be ridiculous to ask the residents of Harrison, Fairfield, Anderson Township, West Chester, Union Township or Green Township to pay their "fair" share of light rail that will never serve them.
The only good news is that it will be a very long time before enough votes are available for the light rail fans to force light rail on the rest of us. The political mix of the 1.7 million or so folks living beyond the city borders is quite a bit different than the 300,000 or so living inside the little city.
It's genuinely shameful that a news organization like the Cincinnati Enquirer is unable -- or even worse -- unwilling to understand that.