One year ago, if you had searched for the most recurring word in Cincinnati political news, the number one result, possibly before “the” or “a,” would be “streetcar.”
Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but it can’t be too far off the mark; last year at this time, local politics and the streetcar debate were interchangeable terms. Despite the fact that ground was broken and construction began as far back as 2012, the project nearly met its end after a slate of anti-streetcar candidates were elected last November. However, after much debate and allocation of private funding for construction, City Council voted to restart the project in December 2013. With that decision, the streetcar project began to fade into the background of the Cincinnati political landscape. Just recently, however, City Council found a new obstacle to throw onto the tracks, and the streetcar’s progress is threatened once again.
According to reports, the streetcar is set to open in 2016 with a line from Over-The-Rhine to the Banks. What has not been set in stone is who will be in charge of day-to-day streetcar operations and how funds for these operations will be allocated. Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), the organization responsible for overseeing streetcar operations, is currently in talks with the city regarding the operational specifics, and there has been a slight snag: councilwoman Yvette Simpson recently proposed that the search for businesses to operate the streetcar should be geographically limited to the Cincinnati area.
Councilwoman Simpson’s argument is superficially compelling: the streetcar, a symbol of Cincinnati’s economic promise, should be used to create jobs and generate profit for the Queen City. This is undeniably an ideal scenario. In reality, however, even proposing this idea publicly risks impeding the streetcar’s forward mobility. Cincinnati, in its relative inexperience with public transit outside of our bus system, plays host to hardly any companies with the credentials and capability to manage such a system.
The search for a viable option would likely be prolonged and difficult, and, even if SORTA were to find such a company in Cincinnati, publicly verbalizing the preference for local companies gives this hypothetical company the power to make demands for failure bumpers and the like from SORTA, and, by extension, the city of Cincinnati.
There has been no formal movement in council to make this a part of the negotiations, but the fact that the councilwoman would even suggest this is dangerous, as it can encourage (and, according to some rumors, has encouraged) local unions to push for such a stipulation, or else.
I did not initially support the reanimation of the streetcar, but we have come too far to turn back now. By proposing the idea — or worse, by making it official that the operating company of the streetcar must be a local one — council risks losing its year of progress in a quagmire of bickering among themselves and external influences.
Even if the arguments are settled, the probability that a company found using this method would successfully run or even accept the responsibility for the success of the streetcar seems minimal. This sort of talk should be quickly discounted, and a viable candidate for Cincinnati’s streetcar’s day-to-day management must be found post-haste to ensure that this costly project does not go the same way as our subway.