Atlantic Cities

The Streetcar at the Heart of the Cincinnati Mayoral Race

The Streetcar at the Heart of the Cincinnati Mayoral Race
ProTransit Cincinnati

Of the many vital civic matters that might decide a local election, you wouldn't expect a streetcar to be at the top of the list. But that's exactly what's happening in Cincinnati, Ohio. Whether or not city residents vote for John Cranley and Roxanne Qualls — both very qualified candidates from the same party — may well come down to how they feel about the city's streetcar plan.

On that topic, the candidates couldn't have more divergent views. Cranley is very much against it, Qualls very much for it. A website for the local Fox affiliate recently offered their thoughts in back-to-back statements:

"We will stop this project. We will bring some sanity back to the financial house of the city and we will put the focus back on neighborhoods and basic services and public safety," says Cranley.

"I believe that it is really an issue that is about vision and about the future of the city and continuing to invest in projects that bring population back," said Qualls. "Bring residents back and bring jobs and bring businesses back to the city."

The Cincinnati streetcar has been nothing if not embattled over the years. The project survived two referendums, winning 56-44 in 2009 and 51-49 in 2011, as well as continual assault from local opponents. One of these groups, called COAST, recently tried to prevent a pro-streetcar Cincinnati blogger living in Korea from being allowed to cast an absentee ballot in favor of Qualls.

Streetcar advocates believe the project will give the city a great economic boost — often comparing it to Portland's successful line. Critics, meanwhile, have questioned that comparison, especially since Cincinnati's population fell by the same amount that Portland's grew between 2000 and 2010 (roughly 10 percent). The economic impact of streetcars is historically difficult to judge, and Cincinnati's plan is no exception; current benefit-cost estimates range all the way from 34:1 on the high end to 2.7:1 on the low.

Only time can speak to the accuracy of those predictions. For now, what's most important is that the streetcar project has not only endured its early critics but is already under construction. Groundbreaking for the line took place in early 2012, and a half-mile of track will have been laid by the time either Cranley or Qualls takes office. So the real question is what — if anything — Cincinnati's next mayor can do about the situation.

Some believe things are too far along to go back. The Cincinnati CityBeat analyzed streetcar expenses and concluded that stopping the project at this stage would prove much more costly than completing it. But just how much more costly is both important and unclear. John Deatrick, the person in charge of the streetcar project, recently told WCPO Cincinnati that the city probably wouldn't recoup all its money if it cancelled the project, but probably wouldn't have to pay all its contracts, either.

Today, voters will have to take the candidates on faith: Cranley says the city can back out of the deal, Qualls says it can't. Right now Cranley seems to have the edge. He won the primary with 56 percent of the vote (to 37 percent for Qualls), and received an endorsement from the Cincinnati Enquirer. The city's election will be over come Wednesday, but if Cranley holds on, debates over the topic that helped bring him to office will have only begun.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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