The first big derailment was yet another delay in the opening date. When seeking "Tiger" funding from the feds, the optimists predicted a 2013 opening. That was pushed to 2014 after Gov. Kasich pulled state funding and forced a re-working of the plan. Then a few weeks ago, that date was further pushed back to sometime in 2015. Is anybody shocked that progress is happening quite a bit slower than predicted?
The latest derailment comes from a complicated $29 million reshuffling of funding sources.
The first alarm bell should have sounded when the city admitted that a downtown tax improvement district (TID) was certain to fail to meet its streetcar support goal. This was blamed, logically-but-superficially, on the weak economy resulting in less-than-hoped-for tax collections. But this raises doubts about a central tenet of the streetcar enthusiasts: that the permanent tracks will provide a level of predictability that will spur investment. Well...shouldn't the downtown TID be benefitting at least a little from this project? Instead, it appears that the promise of a streetcar offers very little true business confidence. (Much like the fact that cities with subsidized pro sports teams have failed to demonstrate any better economic success than cities overall). A whole bunch of promises about economic development were made. None of them seem very reliable now.
The second alarm bell should have sounded over this tedious-but-important utility cost dispute. Project critics had questioned the city's lowball estimate on utility relocation costs from day one. They were right. Now the city needs to set aside $15 million to cover costs that enthusiasts swore up and down would never be that high. And even worse, the city is taking funds away from neighborhoods to cover the funding gap for the streetcar. Left unclear is whether this utility debacle boosts the $110 million streetcar to something closer to $125 million. The city already appears to be off by 20 percent on its cost estimates and construction has barely started. Not feeling good about this.
The third alarm bell should have sounded over the continuing blind faith from streetcar fans that the new casino will spin off enough tax revenue to pay for a large chunk of the project. (This is an especially ironic funding source given that the city refused the casino's request for a direct connection to the streetcar line.) How many different ways can the city spend its pot of yet-to-be-received money? And why on Earth should we trust the tax revenue projections? Isn't the casino itself late already? Isn't the current casino design smaller than orginally discussed? One thing that we can take to the bank: the casino owners will pursue every way they can think of to reduce their tax liability. Counting on that cash is a very dangerous thing.
The fourth alarm bell should have sounded when the streetcar project was downsized to reflect funding realities. Yet none of the ridership or economic impact projections have changed. How can that be? There is no connection to the UC/Pill Hill area anymore, not even the semi-useless "stub" that would have reached the top of the Vine Street hill. There is no connection anymore between two of the city's largest employment areas. Hip, cool, young UC-associated grad students and staff cannot move into hip, cool OTR and ride the current streetcar to campus. Maybe some of the hipster wait staff at the new restaurants at the Banks will want to live in OTR. But there can't be very many. The fundamental question -- Who plans to ride the streetcar? -- remains profoundly unclear.
And yet the money flows. Hmmm.
And one more thing: The streetcar fans keep saying wheeled trolleys cannot do the same thing for downtown because "bus routes change and rail routes don't." Really? Please explain how many Metro bus routes have been relocated over the years. The fact is bus lines run along our major streets, and those major streets don't change all that much. For example, I'm pretty sure Montgomery Road is going to remain Montgomery Road for a very, very long time. I think the average shop owner can rely on Metro buses travelling along that road for the likely lifespan of their business. Fact is, Montgomery Road shops and restaurants and other businesses have changed many times over the years - and the bus service has been running basically since buses were invented. The fact is, one segment of our society thinks streetcars are cool. As we all know, fashion trends change all the time. Committing $110 million and counting is a very high price to pay for "coolness."