Monday, January 21, 2008

Are Streetcars The Answer? I'm Not Convinced.

I realize that I can openly disagree with Brian only so many times before I wear out my welcome, but I have to admit, I'm not sure that streetcars are the panacea that will revitalize downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

It seems that everyone who has jumped onto the streetcar bandwagon wants to remind us what a great boon they've been in Portland, Oregon. Well, bully for Portland! I grew up in Buffalo, NY. And the streetcar fervor in Cincinnati sounds much like what we were told about a new subway in Buffalo when I was growing up. It'll spur economic development, people said. It will attract new businesses downtown and everywhere along the subway line, people said.

Guess what? Buffalo's subway system has been open since 1984. Does anybody think Buffalo represents a model of economic development? And quite frankly, from a demographic and cultural standpoint, which city does Cincinnati more closely resemble: Buffalo or Portland?

Why do people think that what was good for Portland of the Pacific Northwest will be good for Cincinnati, in the heart of the Midwest? Here are some statistics to show the differences:
Population: Cincinnati--332,252; Portland--537,081
Median income: Cincinnati--$29,554; Portland--$42,287
Racial composition: Cincinnati--52% white, 49% black; Portland--75% white, 6% hispanic, 6% black
Average number of days with high temparature above 90: Cincinnati--28; Portland--10.
Average number of days with low temperature below 32: Cincinnati--98; Portland--44.
Average snowfall: Cincinnati--23 inches; Portland--3.1 inches.
Average price for a gallon of gasoline: Cincinnati--$2.87; Portland--$2.97.

Streetcars may be a good idea. But lately, some have suggested that they're the most important piece of the puzzle to development in Cincinnati. That's going too far. The City's most impressive piece of real estate--the Banks--has sat empty for years because our local leaders can't get their acts together. And OTR residents are still in need of more places to work, shop, and play.

Without strong, competent leadership, streetcars won't do the city a bit of good. And we seem to have leaders who are great at talking about things, but not so good at seeing them through. Doing the homework to get things done seems to be more than many of our politicians want to do. Does anyone else remember that when the street car plan was rolled out at a Council meeting (a committee meeting, I think), Chris Bortz went so far as to say that the City wouldn't even have to pay to have the electrical lines (that would power the streetcars) to be installed, as the utility companies would no doubt do it free of charge, realizing how much money the streetcars would bring in from revenues from new businesses? And does anyone else remember the Enquirer reporting the next day that a spokesperson from Duke Energy indicated that they hadn't been approached about that, and that it would cost so much the company would be unwilling to absorb the cost on its own?

Urban planning and economic development is tough stuff. We need people in our leadership who want to roll up their sleeves, not just be on television as often as possible. Streetcars might be one piece in a very complex puzzle that will help Cincinnati be prosperous. But a solution in and of themselves? Color me decidedly undecided.

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