The construction of a streetcar system in Cincinnati, which was all but certain just months ago, might be in jeopardy after attempts by newly-elected Ohio Governor John Kasich to strip portions of its funding.
According to Randy A. Simes, the editor of UrbanCincy.com, the staunchly anti-transit Republican is attempting to lay claim to $52M of federally-funded, state-administered grants on the pretense of reducing Ohio’s $8 billion budget deficit.
But Kasich’s attempt to redirect funds violates the state’s protocol for awarding transportation dollars, possibly leaving him vulnerable to legal action by the city. Established in 1997 to depoliticize the Ohio Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) selection process, the Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) evaluates construction projects based on livability and economic development criteria and ranks them according to a score intended to prioritize the distribution of ODOT funding. TRAC awarded the streetcar a best-in-state 84. By comparison, the I-75/I-71 Brent Spence Bridge Replacement, which many transit advocates believe would receive the Cincinnati Streetcar’s diverted funds if Kasich is successful, received a 44.
Some transit advocates believe strategic political appointments are being used to advance the governor’s anti-transit agenda. When asked how the governor was justifying his dubious claim to the money, Simes said that the new head of TRAC—Kasich’s lone appointment to the council—is opposed to the streetcar project, and “Kasich claims that the committee rarely goes against the will of its head.”
Regarding the governor’s opposition to the streetcar, Melissa Ayers, Deputy Director of Communications for ODOT cited the budget: “At this time there is not enough funding for all of the projects currently on the Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) list. The TRAC is working to bring this program back into fiscal balance.” She added that TRAC “received an unprecedented number of public comments, more than 3,400, with a majority opposed to the project,” and pointed to an excerpt from the TRAC Policy & Procedures document explaining the council’s final discretion on funding: “The ranking is a means to help the TRAC generally prioritize and rank projects in order of their transportation and community/economic development benefits… It is explicit TRAC policy that projects can be selected regardless of their score, ranking, cost, or functional class.”
It was not clear from her statement whether Kasich or ODOT had any reason to dispute the merit of the streetcar according to TRAC’s project evaluation criteria.
Opposition to the streetcar is nothing new in Cincinnati. Introduced by anti-transit groups, a 2009 ballot initiative would have amended the City Charter to require a vote on all future expenditures on any passenger rail project. It was defeated by a sound majority of Cincinnati voters. Widely seen as a referendum on the streetcar itself, the initiative’s defeat was a major victory for a dedicated group of transit advocates in the city, and for Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory who has been an enthusiastic supporter of the project from the start.
Historically, Cincinnati had an extensive streetcar network, including five inclines that allowed the system to negotiate the city’s steep hills. The last line was decommissioned in 1951. The city is considered a prime candidate for modern streetcars because of its dense population and urban fabric. Phase I of the system would connect the city’s two largest employment centers—Downtown and Uptown—as well as the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood between them. An independent study commissioned by the city predicted nearly $1.5 billion in economic development along the streetcar’s proposed route. To date, nearly $150 million in local, state, and federal support has been allocated to the streetcar, enough to fund Phase I of the project.
Asked about the viability of the project given the threat of funding cuts, streetcar project manager Chris Eilerman said, "We are moving forward with the project." TRAC plans a final vote and public hearing on the fate of the streetcar funds on Tuesday, April 12 in Columbus.
Kasich’s meddling might not be the last hurdle for the streetcar: anti-transit groups are vowing to introduce this year a second ballot initiative in yet another effort to block construction. According to Simes, these groups are as out of touch with Cincinnati voters as Governor Kasich. But, he adds, “Public opinion does not seem to be of much concern to newly elected Governor Kasich whose approval rating now stands at 35%.”