Rubber or Steel?

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Let’s say you are a real estate developer looking to build a project or someone looking to buy a house with the choice of locating on one of two islands. These islands are identical in every way imaginable, they are both the same size, same soil, same distance from the urban core, and both are currently served by a their own car ferry.

The City decides to build a new steel bridge to one of the islands. The same day, the City decides to build a bridge made out of rubber pontoon boats to the other island, thinking if the rubber pontoon boat bridge is successful, they will consider building a steel bridge to the island some day, but if no one uses it, they will simply remove the bridge.

The steel bridge costs more, but will last for 60 years and it can carry more traffic and provides a much smoother ride than the pontoon bridge.

The pontoon bridge is cheaper and can be built faster, but the pontoons require higher annual maintenance costs and have to be replaced entirely every decade or so.

So, which island do you pick and why?Two Islands


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54% of all jobs within the entire City of Cincinnati are in Uptown and Downtown, the two areas the initial phase of the streetcar will connect.

From the Go Cincinnati Report:

  • Downtown accounted for 34% of all jobs in the City in 2005 and has the highest average annual wage, followed by Uptown at 20% of the City’s employment. With more than 50% of the City’s jobs it is clear that Cincinnati’s economic growth strategy should continue to focus on these two areas

Guest Blogger David Ben

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I’ve heard some people recently claim that Cincinnati shouldn’t have streetcars because they are too expensive. They say that if we have $200 million to spend on streetcars, then we ought to have enough money to buy more buses, or for a jail. I see your point, but several problems exist in these statements.

First, the city is not going to spend $200 million on the streetcar. The most ambitious streetcar plan proposed by the City is a 7.9 mile route running from the Zoo in Avondale to the Riverfront for a cost of $185 million. That figure represents the total capital cost, which will be divided between Federal investment, State grants, city capital, TIF revenue, private donors and other sources. The city capital contribution will be in the neighborhood of $60 million. That $60 million is either Tax Increment Financing, which must be spent Downtown, or capital funds, which are used for building infrastructure and making long term investments. Capital Funds can’t be used to hire more police officers or fund recreation centers—bridges and sewers are examples of capital projects.

Second, a streetcar is not a bus, and a bus is not a streetcar. While both are intended to move people, the results are quite different. Buses rearrange their schedules to follow where people are, whereas rail transit directs and creates development. Opponents of the streetcar often boast about how flexible buses are, but the reality is much different. When the bus routes change, it seems they only cut service altogether or follow jobs farther into the suburbs.

Portland Streetcar Stop

If we want to bring new jobs, vitality and a larger tax base to a specific area – a beautiful, historic area like Over-the-Rhine for instance – then we need to install the infrastructure to do so.

In city after city, rail transit causes development. Cities across the country have implemented these systems, and when they do, development occurs at a much higher rate around the tracks than elsewhere in the city. Kenosha, Wisconsin’s 2-mile downtown streetcar loop had an economic impact of 23:1, and Little Rock, Arkansas saw an economic impact 10:1 when they installed their streetcars. These numbers are possible because developers want to know that several thousand transit-riders per day will roll past their property. Because streetcar routes are permanent, they attract permanent investment.

Finally, stop using the jail or stadiums as justification for why streetcars aren’t a good idea. The jails and stadiums you are referring to are controlled by the county, not by the city. There are completely independent pools of money dedicated to these issues, so an investment in streetcars will not detract from funding dedicated to the jail. On the contrary, investing in infrastructure will grow the tax base, increasing the revenue of both the city and the county. If you want more money in the county to build a new jail, support an investment in streetcars, don’t oppose it.

Instead of complaining that there isn’t enough money to go around, start looking for ways the city can make more money without taxing the people. Council did just that, and found that a modern streetcar system will generate more money. That’s called an investment.

David Ben graduated from Xavier University in 2008 with an Honors Bachelor of Arts double major in Philosophy, Politics, & the Public and History. David has studied public transportation as an economic and community development tool since 2007, and will soon begin working for Steve Driehaus’ (D-OH) Congressional office. David intends to enroll in the University of Cincinnati’s Masters in Community Planning program in the Fall.

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At the Cincinnati Neighborhood Summit held last Saturday the participants were asked this question:

Do you think that a streetcar system is a valuable investment for the City of Cincinnati?

The response was two to one in favor of the streetcar with around twenty percent undecided. It was great to see such support for the streetcar from some of the most active and involved members of every neighborhood. Another great result from the survey was 90 percent of the respondents thought the City and County should take the lead in “Going Green.”

If you are reading this and still undecided about the streetcar as an investment for the City, check out the Economic Analysis (.9mb pdf) and the independent evaluation of the Economic Analysis conducted by the University of Cincinnati (.5mb pdf).

Streetcar_Economic Development