Cincinnati’s familiar streetcar saga

As the legal slog to develop a new streetcar system in downtown Milwaukee continues to play out in court, in City Hall and at the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, proponents and opponents alike would do well to keep an eye on Cincinnati.

“More than any project in decades, the streetcar kerfuffle has fueled unending drama and controversy: a symbol of progress for proponents and of profligate spending for detractors.” That quote did not come from Milwaukee, although it would certainly apply. It came from a blog written by Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld earlier this year.

Sittenfeld was referring a seven-year debate over a proposed $133 million streetcar system in downtown Cincinnati.

I’ll let Sittenfeld take the Cincinnati story from there…“The saga began when the mayor and city council set the 3.6-mile project in motion, only to have a right-wing anti-tax group gather signatures for a ballot measure to stop the streetcar from being built. Voters rejected the measure; the streetcar survived. Next, then-newly elected Gov. John Kasich yanked $52 million of previously committed state funding from the project, and significantly altered the streetcar’s route and viability. The following year found the same anti-tax group putting yet another measure on the ballot to halt the streetcar – only to have citizens again vote, albeit by a narrow margin, for the project to go forward. The impasse continued…and continued…and continued. Then, in November of 2013, a new mayor was elected in a campaign centered around cancelling the streetcar.”

However, at that point, construction of the streetcar system was well underway.

“The final fate of the project came to a head just before Christmas of 2013, facing a do-or-die funding deadline from the federal government. In soap opera-like fashion, only hours before the deadline, the project survived with just enough votes to overcome a mayoral veto,” Sittenfeld said. “Three Council members – myself included – who had long-standing skepticism about the project agreed to support completion to avoid wasting tens of millions of dollars with nothing to show; damaging our city’s national image; compromising our standing with the federal government; and enduring the loss of jobs and development for a project already underway.”

I recently asked Sittenfeld for an update on the Cincinnati “kerfuffle” and the lessons learned.

“Construction is ongoing, and it remains on-time and on-budget for a 2016 opening. I continue to believe that cancellation once the project had begun would have been an irresponsible waste of taxpayer dollars. Interesting, when GE just recently announced they will be adding 2,000 jobs to our downtown, they cited the streetcar as part of the reason for their location selection. We are focused on making this project a positive catalyst for the city,” he said in an e-mail.

The bottom line for detractors of the Milwaukee project…If you’re truly intent on stopping it, you best do it now before a tax incremental financing (TIF) district is created, construction begins and utility lines are moved, because by then, it will be too far down the track.

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes.

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