On its best day, I think it's a wildly oversold waste of taxpayer money that has near zero chance of living up to its hype. But who will be around in 30 years to look back and say I told you so? No media "tickler file" lasts that long.
So here's my take...if for no other reason than to laugh about later.
First, I think the streetcar will survive the November election and end up getting built. And I think we will come to regret it nearly as much as the Bengals stadium debacle.
I think building a bad transportation project in hopes of spurring economic development in a beat-up part of town is a strange way to run a railroad.
Years ago, during the Great Stadium Debate, I thought it was beyond unfair to ask people to pay more in sales tax for clothing, cars, shelter, etc., just so that other people could waste cash watching sports entertainment. I thought it was irresponsible.
For-profit entertainment needs to pay its own way. Under no circumstances should a local government consider cutting other spending or raising taxes to pay stadium debts. The failure to protect taxpayers in the Bengals deal was, in my opinion, one of the all-time worst local examples of political breach of fiduciary duty.
A bad transporation idea
Likewise, the government has to think long and hard about subsidizing things like the streetcar project. There needs to be solid proof of demand -- and solid evidence that the project will meet that demand -- for a public transit project to go forward. I say the demand for a streetcar is weak at best -- and light rail even less so.
Yet our city leaders seem bent on building this streetcar, even though it will suck limited city resources away from residents in Mount Washington, Sayler Park, Price Hill, Oakley, Mount Adams, Northside and all the rest of the 50 "other" neighborhoods not served by a mini-train running circles in downtown and Over-the-Rhine.
Not only is the streetcar useless to the vast, vast majority of Cincinnati residents, it's not even very useful to the people who would live directly along the route. The demand for moving large numbers of people between Findlay Market and Fountain Square is limited at best.
Think about it. Where can the streetcar, as proposed, actually take people? How does that compare to where those people want, need and expect to be able to go? How many people will see their lives and lifestyles transformed by the streetcar?
Very little open discussion has occurred about this. With this much money involved, somebody needs to be transformed. And that's part of the problem. As transportation, the streetcar has never been good enough -- and that was back when the thing was proposed to reach the Zoo. It's a much shorter route now -- making it even harder to justify.
Phony light rail debate
It's also a joke to attempt to justify a city-only project by debating whether our Tristate region needs to spend billions MORE on light rail -- which by definition would be built mostly outside the city borders. The entire argument about the oh-so-controversial wording that would limit non-streetcar light rail projects "in the city" strikes me as cynical, deliberately deceptive political misdirection. Instead of standing on the merits of the streetcar, proponents are obessing over the ballot language. It depresses me how many people, who otherwise believe in straight dealing and truth talking, have been swayed by this argument.
Regardless of the streetcar vote, if this city is serious about dragging the entire region into spending $2 billion or more on light rail, then I say we better plan on a few more public votes to make sure there is serious public support.
I say public support is even lower for light rail than for the streetcar. I say people in this region -- especially the majority of folks who do NOT live inside the city of Cincinnati -- aren't even close to ready to pay higher taxes to build a rail system that they don't want and won't use.
I also say we could have this argument again in 10 years, and very little about it would change. We certainly had this argument at least 10 years ago in this town, and nothing much has changed since then. But I'm willing to be proven wrong on that score.
Very expensive PR campaign
So what the streetcar really boils down to is a PR image campaign to woo people to move to OTR, and thus spur economic development.
Nevermind that moving to OTR is a risk only some mostly young, frequently single urbanistas will ever be willing to take.
Nevermind that true gains will occur only if the "new" residents are not simply from other parts of the city -- an issue that remains very fuzzy in the existing projections related to the streetcar.
Nevermind that a fair amount of the "new" businesses will be places that simply re-locate from other in-city locations. Moved jobs are not new jobs.
I'm highly, highly skeptical that the city will ever do a study that successfully captures the true -- likely small -- amount of "new" economic development caused by the streetcar. Far more likely: a streetcar believer will simply count everything that happens near the route as being caused by the streetcar -- and that's classic smoke and mirrors.
Green benefits? Please.
It's a joke to think that one, highly limited streetcar route will do anything significant to reduce overall car ownership, miles driven, or amount of pollution emitted by cars. The only thing "green" about the streetcar is the color of the public money about to be burned up by the project.
To some, the streetcar will be a way to connect some people to a larger part of the city without needing to drive around in a car. True enough to an extent. Our city does seem to have some people who don't like cars, and others who cannot afford them. Maybe OTR is the cool place to be for them.
But is this group big enough and important enough to justify one of the city's biggest spending projects in decades to serve? Even if that group really does matter, does the streetcar really serve them, especially when it fails to reach Uptown?
The tiny starter system -- at $100 million -- is not good enough to eliminate the need for car transportation even for many of those who urgently want to live without one. We will still need to spend every penny we already spend on maintaining those evil highways that don't deserve public subsidy according to the hardest-core rail advocates.
Only a major-scale expansion of our bus system and/or a very big light rail system will actually have a chance of taking large numbers of cars off our roads and highways. And that will cost way more than $100 million.
While the streetcar does connect places like Music Hall and Findlay Market, it also fails to connect people to several other big destinations.
All of Uptown/UC/Pill Hill is off the route now -- including the Zoo, one of the city's top attractions. So is the entire riverfront -- which makes the streetcar fundamentally useless to Reds or Bengals fans. The streetcar could have helped spur some game-day economic activity for parking areas and restaurants and bars a bit farther from the sterile stadium surroundings -- and generate some cash for the city from the riders. But no.
The route also manages to miss the new casino site even though the casino owner once proposed paying for a connection. The route skips the convention center, and its nearby hotels -- non-locals who need and expect DIRECT connections. Non-locals who might actually want to ride a streetcar from their hotel to the casino while they're in town on a convention.
The route never was proposed to cross the river. So much for reaching the Aquarium or the movie theatres over there. It also would cost a fortune to cross I-75 to reach the Museum Center. So much for leveraging that public investment.
Connecting more of these sites would add greatly to the streetcar costs. Streetcar advocates won't say so, but the reals costs of a semi-useful "system" that goes up the hill and all the way around the UC campus would approach $200 million. Maybe more.
If it was really about transporting people and connecting places, we could buy wheeled trolleys, maybe even "green" electric-powered ones, and use existing roads to take more people directly to more places than the streetcar ever will.
All of these places could be reached more effectively and at lower cost via a wheeled trolley system. Many non-profit organizations could be helped.
But no, the streetcar isn't about tourism, its advocates say.
It's supposed to be expressly for the people who live in Downtown and OTR.
Is that good enough?
Very expensive 'loss leader'
Well, if the streetcar really does inspire a small shift in the concentrations of where young people choose to live, it MIGHT generate a wave of apartment re-hab construction (beyond what is already happening without a streetcar), MIGHT open a few new shops, etc. But don't forget, the initial $100 million is just for construction.
The streetcar planners have been less-than-forthright about the other costs. The city faces spending a still-unspecified several million a year needed for staffing, debt service and upkeep. Long-term it faces another $50-$80 million to replace all the worn-out stuff. And mid-term, major expansions of the "system" will cost $50 million, $80 million or more.
So OK, let's accept the obvious and understand that the streetcar always will be a money-loser for the city. Will it be a so-called "loss leader," the exciting door-buster sale that gets lots of new customers to come Downtown? Will doing this really make the city appear "progressive?" And will appearing "progressive" actually entice employers to move here and create jobs here?
Let's assume success...
Over a period of 30 years, more office towers fill up downtown, creating demand for office jobs -- i.e. college-educated professionals working for the types of businesses that like downtowns -- a lot of banks, financial services, legal services, various types of government jobs. Plus the assortment of restaurants, coffee shops, bars and such needed to serve them.
Good stuff right? But wait, do we really "want" these jobs? Are we going to welcome them? How many of the pro-streetcar people also are sympathizers with Occupy Wall Street? When the young bankers move in, who gets priced out? What kinds of gentrification protests will we see if and when business-class people actually decide to try to move close enough to the streetcar to actually use it to get to work?
More importantly, how many more tax breaks will the city have to give away to attract these employers? And if we keep giving away the taxes, how does the city ever get out of its annual budget mess? How does incurring the new costs of streetcar upkeep, and OTR development give-aways, help the city fix its pension mess? How does any of this help the city pay for cops, firefighters, snow removal and pothole repair?
But most importantly, I say the city of Cincinnati has so many other bigger, more immediate issues to address than the streetcar. That is my main objection to the project -- we should be taking a flyer on helping OTR only when we can afford to lose the bet we're making by taking such a risk.
And frankly, we can't afford to lose on the streetcar.
Better ways to spend the money
The first best way to "spend" the money about to be wasted on the streetcar is to not spend anything at all. But to the progressives who feel the city urgently needs rescuing, not spending anything just isn't an option. So what are the other choices?
1. How about pumping serious money into re-energizing the various former industrial brownfields and under-developed light manufacturing/office parks scattered within the city borders? I'd like to see the city pump $50 million into bringing real jobs to real places where people actually work.
I'm unaware of any large industrial, light manufacturing, non-office work site that gains better access to potential workers thanks to the streetcar. Yet creating jobs in any one of these city places will generate far bigger bang for the public buck than the coffee shop jobs generated by a streetcar.
Create jobs and workers will arrange their own transportation.
2. If the big goal is to attract more people to the city, isn't it a bit arrogant to target only OTR? Don't we also want people to move to Oakley? Or Mount Washington?
This city has a housing problem that affects virtually every neighborhood, a problem that will not be helped even a little by the streetcar -- which doesn't run past many houses at all. So let's shelve the rails for a while and put another $50 million into immediate, local home-ownership/housing/foreclosure relief.
People in this city need stabilization to stay in their houses. They need security in their lives. The foreclosures hitting the unfortunate few people are smashing property values for a whole bunch more.
The city needs all of these people to keep paying income taxes to the city, and property taxes to the city schools. The streetcar won't help with this. Our city does not need more apartment dwellers moving into OTR nearly as much as we need more homeowners willing to buy property in Northside and Price Hill.
A $50 million relief fund to stabilize neighborhoods could make a big difference right here, right now.
At $25,000 a house, the city could solve a bunch of foreclosure problems by erasing two years of $1,000/month mortgage payments with zero-interest or near-zero interest loans for distressed homeowners. $50 million spits out 2,000 such loans. Cut it to one year, generate 4,000 loans. Cut it to six months, generate 8,000 loans.
Let the city get involved where the cash-hoarding banks won't. Target entire streets. Entire blocks. If things go belly-up later, the city gets the property -- in bigger chunks. Chunks of hard-to-sell housing can be dealt with in creative ways, be it tearing them down or re-developing into other uses. Such action can do more to help protect the other properties nearby. More than a bank will ever do on its own.
General goal: give out the first batches of keep-your-house loans in the places that have highest concentrations of foreclosures. Stop the downward spiral. Restore confidence. Allow growth to return.
A person could contend that $50 million isn't enough to rescue our neighborhoods. I would agree. And that's why spending so much money on a streetcar makes so little sense to me. We can pretty much guarantee that once we go deeper into debt for a streetcar, we won't be able to spend big on anything else for a long time.