Cincinnati’s attempt to bring streetcars back to the city more than six decades after the last line closed has survived two citywide referenda — one in 2009, another in 2011 — but it may not survive yesterday’s mayoral vote. The most salient distinction between the two Democratic candidates, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and former councilmember John Cranley, was the streetcar project, with the election turning into somewhat of yet another referendum on the issue.
With 58 percent of the vote to Qualls’ 42 percent, Cranley, who opposes the streetcar, is now Cincinnati’s mayor-elect. His margin of victory is larger than the streetcar’s during its two referenda, in which 56 and 52 percent of the electorate, respectively, voted against propositions to kill the project. And of the city council’s nine members, six oppose the streetcar.
During his acceptance speech, Cranley again vowed to “get out of” the streetcar project, though how he intends to do that is unclear. By the time he takes office, a half-mile of track will already be laid, and contracts have long been signed. By one reckoning, it would actually be more expensive to stop the project — $29 million more expensive — than to keep it going. Awkward, given that Cranley’s objection to the project is based entirely on fiscal grounds.
“We’d see what the options are to cancel the contract,” he told Cincinnati CityBeat last month, adding mysteriously, “We always have the option of renegotiating the contracts to do other infrastructure work in the city.”
When the Cincinnati Business Courrier asked if he had an alternative in mind to the streetcar, he cited rubber-tire trolleys:
The reality is that the people behind the streetcar have great love for this city. They want what I want — a vibrant, 24/7 downtown, Over-the-Rhine, and Banks. I think Hop on Cincinnati (a proposed trackless trolley) and things of that nature like downtown Denver — no one’s accusing Denver of being behind the times. And they’ve got a similar kind of thing. I think starting to work on something that’s affordable is something that can help unite the city.
While some have tried to paint the incoming mayor as a Tea Partier, streetcar proponents can’t dismiss his opposition that easily. Cranley co-founded the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Law, whose mission was to win exonerations for the wrongly convicted, and was a partner at City Lights Development — somewhat ironic, given that the argument for mixed-traffic streetcars like Cincinnati’s rests entirely on their development potential.
And then there was the Cincinnati NAACP’s opposition to the project back in 2009, when then-president Christopher Smitherman said, “The streetcar makes no sense when City Council cannot support basic bus service.” (Smitherman now sits on that very council and is one of its six anti-streetcar members. He was reelected yesterday.)
Whether the newly empowered streetcar foes can actually send it to the scrapheap of half-built Cincinnati transit infrastructure — where it would join a never-used subway tunnel — remains to be seen.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.