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Moving Forward

Yesterday marked another long-overdue milestone in Cincinnati’s transit history, as the city formally broke ground on the first phase of the modern streetcar line that will connect Over-the-Rhine, downtown, and the riverfront. Although there will no doubt continue to be hurdles and the usual litany of catcalls from naysayers, the project now seems to be much more of a sure thing than it did only a few short months ago.

This has also been a period of transition and new beginnings in my own professional and personal life. As I continue to make progress on my M.Arch. degree at DAAP, I’ve begun to further develop my interests in other areas of design, and I’ll soon be starting a five-month co-op assignment with a well-respected architecture firm in Santa Monica, California. I’m very excited about further exploring the Los Angeles area, and I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to join this firm for my co-op.

All that has left me wondering what to do with this blog, and after a lot of thought, I’ve made the decision to put it on indefinite hiatus. For one, I simply don’t have the spare time to maintain this blog along with my other obligations, and I don’t want to find myself pigeonholed professionally as “the transit guy”. Also, a number of other local blogs have slowly withered away after the departure of their respective founders to other cities, and I’d rather make a clean exit. I’ll continue to advocate for improved public transit, but such advocacy will now occur within the context of broader social justice and design-related issues. With the Cincinnati streetcar now under construction and me getting ready to pack my bags for California, this seems like an appropriate time to declare victory and move on to other things that interest me. This website will remain online indefinitely as an archive, but will no longer be updated.

If you’re a fan of the Metro Cincinnati page on Facebook, note that the page will soon be discontinued. As an alternative, I encourage you to join the BANANAS (“Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody, Stupid!”) group on Facebook, a sarcastically-named group of transit advocates in Cincinnati.

Thanks to all who assisted with this project when it was still an academic endeavor, and thanks to all who have supported this blog and its mission over the past few years.

Peace,

David

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A Great Night for Cincinnati

Cincinnati’s future got a lot brighter last night, with the defeat of Issue 48 and the election of a pro-streetcar supermajority to City Council.

Issue 48, which would have outlawed any form of passenger rail in Cincinnati for the next ten years, was defeated by voters 51.5% to 48.5%. It’s a little closer than I would’ve liked, but I’ll take it. This is the second time in two years that Cincinnati voters have rejected deceptive charter amendments pushed by fringe groups that would put a stranglehold on the development of rail transit in the city.

If the Issue 48 results were a little too close for comfort, there was nothing ambiguous about the City Council results. Cincinnati’s city council is a nine-member body whose members are elected at-large. The nine candidates who receive the most votes are elected to office.

The Enquirer sums it up nicely:

Voters ousted four incumbent Republicans from Cincinnati City Council on Tuesday night, choosing instead seven Democrats, a majority of African-Americans, the first openly gay candidate and enough support to move forward with the streetcar project.

Pro-streetcar council members will soon form a 6-3 supermajority on City Council. Together with the defeat of Issue 48, this ensures the streetcar project will move forward. Streetcar opponents have vowed to continue trying to kill the project, but at this point their options for doing so are limited.

The most disappointing news of the evening was anti-streetcar zealot Christopher Smitherman winning a seat on council, while solid candidates like Kevin Flynn and Jason Riveiro didn’t quite make the cut. But Smitherman will be completely marginalized and I suspect his tenure in City Hall will be a short one, and I doubt we’ve heard the last of Flynn or Riveiro.

UrbanCincy has more.

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The Enquirer Throws COAST Under the Streetcar

The Enquirer’s coverage of the streetcar has been spotty at best, and I’ve called them out plenty of times when their “news” coverage about the streetcar has veered into territory that should be confined to the editorial page. That said, it’s only fair to give the Enquirer props when they get it right. In today’s editorial endorsing a “no” vote on Issue 48, they hit the ball out of the park:

They’re at it again. The folks who brought us Issue 9 in 2009, that weasel-worded, yes-means-no proposition meant to befuddle voters into killing the Cincinnati streetcar, have reprised their antics with Issue 48.

And as with that 2009 issue, we vigorously oppose Issue 48 and urge voters to reject it.

Why? It’s broadly phrased in a way that could handcuff officials on a range of projects, not just the pending $95 million Downtown streetcar, and cause havoc for economic development in the city.

Perhaps as importantly, the Enquirer also deserves props for endorsing seven out of nine pro-streetcar city council candidates in today’s edition. These endorsements include Roxanne Qualls, Kevin Flynn, Laure Quinlivan, Chris Bortz, Wendell Young, Chris Seelbach, and Yvette Simpson. While it’s regrettable that streetcar supporter Jason Riveiro wasn’t included among the Enquirer’s list of endorsements, it was nice to see COAST-supported candidates like Leslie Ghiz and Charlie Winburn left out in the cold. It’s also worth noting that P. G. Sittenfeld — the monied favorite of the Hyde Park country club set who can’t seem to take decisive a stand on the streetcar if his life depended on it — also did not receive an endorsement.

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COAST Charged with Making False Statements to Influence Issue 48 Vote

And in Ohio, that’s a crime that can be punished with up to six months in prison and/or a $5000 fine. Here’s the press release from Cincinnatians for Progress:

October 28, 2011

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

In an action filed today with the Ohio Elections Commission, Cincinnatians for Progress formally charged COAST with knowingly making false statements to affect the outcome of the Issue 48 election vote.

The case cites twenty instances in the past two months in which COAST made false statements in violation of Ohio Revised Code Section 3517.22. Most claim the city has taken funds away from fire services to fund the streetcar project.

The Revised Code specifies those found guilty of violating Section 3517.22 “shall be imprisoned for not more than six months or fined not more than five thousand dollars, or both.”

Cincinnatians for Progress is leading the effort to defeat Issue 48, which would prohibit the city from investing in rail transit until 2021.

COAST has conducted a relentless campaign of deliberate misinformation about Issue 48 in the face of definitive evidence that their statements are wrong. Not only are the facts widely available in local media and city records, they have been provided directly to COAST officials by the city.

Our goal in filing this action to to assure that city voters can cast their ballots based on accurate, authoritative information.

David Dawson

Margaret McGurk

Rob Richardson

Mark Schmidt

Co-chairs, Cincinnatians for Progress

Some historical context: An anti-rail group led by Stephan Louis was found guilty of the same crimes while successfully leading a dishonest campaign to defeat the Metro Moves light rail initiative in 2002. Louis was appointed to the SORTA board by a right-wing Hamilton County Commission as political payback for his work in defeating Metro Moves, and continues to speak on behalf of COAST today.

One wonders if Chris Smitherman will also find himself added to the complaint, in light of his recent Facebook posts that clearly misrepresent the nature of Issue 48, despite Smitherman himself being heavily involved in its creation.

If nothing else, this shows that anti-progress zealots know they can’t defeat rail transit on its merits, so the only weapons they have left are lies and misrepresentation. Grab some popcorn and pull up a chair. This one is going to be fun to watch.

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Metro Cincinnati to be Featured During ArchiNATI’s Visual Delight Presentation

If you follow goings-on in Cincinnati, then by now you should be aware of the first annual ArchiNATI festival, a week-long celebration of Cincinnati’s built environment. ArchiNATI is the brainchild of the Young Architects and Interns Forum (YAIF), a committee of the Cincinnati Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. (Full disclosure: yours truly is a YAIF member and has been helping coordinate online publicity for ArchiNATI.)

ArchiNATI 2011 will kick off at 6 PM on Friday, October 14th with a social gathering and Visual Delight presentation at the former Cue space at 1219 Main Street, next door to Japp’s. As part of the Visual Delight presentation, I will be giving a short presentation about the Metro Cincinnati project. Admission is free, and all those who have an interest in Cincinnati’s built environment are encouraged to attend.

ArchiNATI continues through Friday the 21st. The Events Calendar contains the full list of ArchiNATI events, many of which will be of interest to readers of this site.

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Going Underground

Just a quick note to inform readers that tomorrow evening, yours truly will be boarding a flight to London, where I’ll be spending the next twelve days exploring that fair city’s transit system, neighborhoods, and pubs. I also plan on taking a few side trips via rail, most notably a day trip to Paris on the Eurostar. This will be my second trip to London; the first was in March 2001, and I’ve been itching to get back there ever since. There have been a lot of changes since then, both in London and in the world at large, as well as in my own life.

I’ll be sure to post my thoughts, along with plenty of photos, when I return. In the meantime, you can track my adventures in real-time by following me on Twitter. Follow @MetroCincy for transit-related stuff, and my personal account @LivingInGin for random musings that aren’t necessarily transit-related.

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Stay Classy, Smitherman

Chris Smitherman being restrained by security after attempting to assault a streetcar supporter during a recent hearing at City Hall. Several NAACP members attempted to prevent me from taking this photo.

If the national office of the NAACP had any idea what Chris Smitherman is doing to their brand here in Cincinnati, they would’ve shown him the door years ago. The head of the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP and one-term city council member, Smitherman has a long history of outlandish statements, paranoid conspiracy theories, shameless opportunism (witness Smitherman climbing into bed with right-wing tea party groups like COAST, and becoming a perpetual gadfly on race-baiting 700-WLW to further his own political ambitions), and generally being a militant activist against any idea or proposal that might actually improve job prospects and the quality of life for the people he claims to represent. This is the guy who led a successful referendum against a proposed regional waterworks district — a proposal that would have saved the city millions that could’ve otherwise been used for inner-city schools and public safety — on the grounds that it would provide a means for city leaders to pump syphilis into black communities via the drinking water supply. Seriously.

Smitherman’s latest cause du jour is yet another campaign to block construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar, after a similar campaign in 2009 was defeated by voters 56% to 44%. You’d think the NAACP would be in favor of improved public transportation options in the urban core. Indeed, the NAACP has been an outspoken proponent of mass transit in many other cities. The stated reasons for Smitherman’s opposition to the streetcar? Gentrification.

For the moment I’ll leave aside the tacit admission that the streetcar will indeed bring jobs and much-needed redevelopment to downtown and Over-the-Rhine, instead of being a costly “boondoggle” that nobody will use, as claimed by opponents. (The streetcar either won’t work at all or it will work too well. Take your pick.) But given that OTR still has over 500 vacant buildings and some parts of the neighborhood remain mired in poverty and violence, fears about gentrification seem a bit overstated. Smitherman’s real, unstated concern is that continued improvements in OTR will deprive him of the poverty-stricken ghetto from which he derives his political power base. Rather than working to ensure that the rising tide lifts all boats, he’d rather keep the his constituents stuck in the muck, because that’s how demagogues remain in power.

Enter Kevin Osborne of CityBeat Cincinnati, an alternative weekly newspaper. This past week Osborne published an op-ed that rightly eviscerates Smitherman & Co. for their deceptive effort to kill any hope of passenger rail in Cincinnati for the next decade:

It’s not a surprise that COAST — which is Libertarian to the extreme, dislikes government involvement in most sectors of society and hates mass transit — would try to pull the wool over voters’ eyes. One COAST leader, Anderson Township resident Chris Finney, is a crackerjack attorney who’s made a lucrative career from suing governments and promoting ultra-conservative legislation. Make no doubt, the wording in the proposed amendment isn’t a mistake; it’s there for a reason and COAST realizes its full impact.

The real question is why would Christopher Smitherman and Michelle Edwards of the local NAACP go along with such a far-reaching initiative?

Do they honestly think the predominantly African-American residents of poor, inner-city neighborhoods like Avondale and Evanston wouldn’t be well-served by having cheap transportation to job centers in Mason and Northern Kentucky? And just what do you think a gallon of gasoline will be selling for on Dec. 31, 2020?

Photo: SpeathC / CincyVoices.com

Osborne’s piece apparently struck a nerve with Smitherman’s NAACP. Did they respond by submitting their own op-ed that articulates their opposition to the project? Of course not; that just wouldn’t be the Smitherman way. Smitherman’s volunteers found it much easier to simply gather all the print copies of CityBeat from sidewalk newsstands and dump them into the garbage. As luck would have it, a blogger for CincyVoices.com happened to be walking by at the moment:

When me and my girlfriend were walking home from the Downtown Dash 5k I saw a Chris Smitherman campaign worker collecting signatures. I thought “I hope she doesn’t expect us to sign anything.” Luckily she walked right past us, but it was her next action that offended me. She opened up the City Beat bin on 7th and Race and threw away every issue inside. For someone running for office to have their campaign workers go out and throw out issues of publications who disagree with him is pretty appalling. There are plenty of times I disagree with the Cincinnati Enquirer, but would never even think about going around town and tossing out bins of Enquirers.

This is only the latest in a long series of thuggish and deceptive antics that have been pulled by streetcar opponents over the years, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. If you witness anything along these lines, don’t confront the person engaging in such behavior, but document what you can via photos or videos, and get the word out. Contact the Hamilton County Board of Elections and Cincinnatians for Progress if you witness anything that might be illegal, and stay vigilant. The good news is, Smitherman is struggling to even gather enough petition signatures by the deadline to get his anti-rail measure on the November ballot, and even if it makes it onto the ballot, we’re confident that it will be defeated by voters in a similar manner as the failed Issue 9 initiative in 2009.

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Learning from Los Angeles

California Dreamin'

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Los Angeles for the first time on a business trip. The vast majority of my transit-related expertise so far has been from transit systems that I’ve experienced first-hand, particularly in Chicago and along the East Coast. From that perspective, Los Angeles had never spent much time on my radar screen, and I had at least partially bought into the stereotype of LA as an unwalkable, automobile-dependent suburban wasteland. To be sure, I saw plenty of areas that fit that description, and after spending an afternoon on the 405 freeway, I vowed never to complain about Cincinnati traffic again.

Nevertheless, while I didn’t have the opportunity to do as much exploring as I would’ve liked (most of my time was spent documenting light fixtures and floor finishes inside an Orange County department store), what little I saw of LA’s transit system during my brief visit prompted some additional research once I got back home, and what I found was fascinating and encouraging for the future of public transit in that city and beyond. The story of public transit and urban planning in Los Angeles forms an arc of ambitious beginnings, a tragic fall from grace, and modern-day redemption.

Streetcar City: Golden Age and Decline

Despite the stereotype of Los Angeles as a traffic-choked web of freeways, the central core of Los Angeles owes its form to what was once the largest streetcar network in the world. Although the streetcars themselves are gone, the urban form that remains is a direct legacy of the city’s streetcar system.

Like most other cities, the Los Angeles streetcar system had modest beginnings in the form of horesecars, with LA’s first horsecar line opening in 1874 as the Spring and West 6th Street Railroad. The first electric streetcar in Los Angeles began operation in 1887, two years before electric streetcar service began in Cincinnati. In the late 1800′s Los Angeles also briefly boasted of an extensive cable car system similar to that of San Francisco, but as with cable cars in Cincinnati, most lines were eventually either converted to electric streetcar operation or abandoned by the turn of the 20th Century. Los Angeles has one surviving incline, the Angels Flight, serving the downtown neighborhood of Bunker Hill.

Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, streetcar service in greater Los Angeles during the first half of the 20th Century came to consist of two dominant players: The Los Angeles Railway (the “Yellow Car”) and the Pacific Electric Railway (the “Red Car”). The former was a narrow-gauge streetcar system that primary served downtown Los Angles and a number of neighborhoods close to the central core of the city, while the latter consisted of standard-gauge streetcar and interurban lines that reached as far east as San Bernardino, as far north as the San Fernando Valley, and as far south as Long Beach and Orange County. At their respective peaks, the Los Angeles Railway operated 20 lines on 642 miles of track, while the Pacific Electric Railway operated over 2700 trains daily on over a thousand miles of track, including a short subway and terminal building in downtown Los Angeles.

"Who needs a car in LA? We have the best public transit system in the world!"

Los Angeles experienced a period of rapid growth during the early part of the 20th Century, when the city’s streetcar network was at its most extensive. As a result, many parts of the city and surrounding suburbs were urbanized along the streetcar lines, and today, the most densely-populated parts of the city remain neighborhoods and corridors that developed in response to the streetcars.

Over time, though, the streetcars became victims of their own success. Increased traffic congestion in the rapidly-growing city slowed down service, and a number of populist politicians rallied against real and perceived abuses of the public trust by the traction companies. The private automobile was seen as the new and progressive form of transportation, and extensive freeway systems began to appear on drawing boards as early as the 1930′s. (Early proposals for Southern California freeways included dedicated rights-of-way for bus and/or rail transit service, but it has only been in recent years that such ideas have been implemented.)

Pacific Electric Red Cars awaiting destruction (photo: George Louis / Wikipedia.com)

With the rise in private automobile ownership came a corresponding rise in the financial and political power of the companies that manufacture automobiles and sell gasoline, tires, and other car-related products and services. General Motors, in partnership with Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) and Phillips Petroleum formed a holding company called National City Lines. The purpose of the company was to buy or otherwise gain control of various streetcar systems throughout the country, and dismantle the systems in favor of diesel-powered buses. By the late 1940′s, National City Lines and its subsidiaries owned or controlled over a hundred streetcar systems in the United States, including the Yellow Car in Los Angeles. In 1949, General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Firestone and others were convicted of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products to local transit companies controlled by National City Lines and other companies. The corporations involved were fined $5000, and their executives were fined one dollar each. But the damage had already been done in Los Angeles and elsewhere. On March 13, 1963, a full thirteen years after streetcar service ceased in Cincinnati, the last remaining streetcar lines in Los Angeles were shut down. The next three decades of urban growth in the Los Angeles area would be defined by extensive freeway construction and chronic traffic congestion.

Los Angeles Today

Los Angeles would remain without any form of large-scale rail transit until the opening of the Metro Blue Line light rail line in 1990. Over the following years, newer additions of the region’s rail transit system would include the Green and Gold light rail lines, the Red and Purple heavy rail subway lines, the Metrolink commuter rail system, and several bus rapid transit (BRT) lines. What follows is a brief description of the various modes of transit in the Los Angeles area.

Light Rail

LA Metro Gold Line at Little Tokyo / Arts District (photo: Salaam Allah / NYCsubway.org)

As described elsewhere on this site, the term “light rail” is a broadly-defined form of rail transit that can refer to anything from a slightly larger form of a streetcar (such as Boston’s Green Line) to something that falls just shy of a full-blown heavy rail subway system. Light rail in Los Angeles falls sharply toward the latter end of that spectrum. All light rail trains on the LA Metro have high-level boarding, similar to heavy-rail subway trains, and some Blue Line and Gold Line trains operate with three articulated light rail vehicles (LRVs), reaching the approximate length of a six-car subway train. With few exceptions, most light rail lines operate in dedicated rights-of-way.

The Blue Line, the region’s first light rail line, opened in 1990 and serves a 22-mile-long corridor running due south from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach. The Blue Line runs in a dedicated subway tunnel in downtown Los Angeles and on surface streets near downtown LA and in Long Beach, but most of the route utilizes the four-track Pacific Electric right-of-way. The Blue Line provides a transfer to the Red Line and Purple Line subway at the Metro Center station downtown, and a transfer to the Green Line at the Imperial / Wilimington / Rosa Parks station.

The Green Line, opened in 1995, runs on an east-west route across the southern portion of Los Angeles, primarily in the median of the 105 freeway. The Green Line is fully grade-separated, with a dedicated right-of-way along its entire route. As of this writing, the Green Line has an indirect connection to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) via shuttle bus, although future proposals call for a branch of the line to extend directly to the airport itself in conjunction with the proposed Crenshaw Corridor. The Green Line’s only connection to the rest of the Metro rail system is at the aforementioned transfer point to the Blue Line.

The most recent light rail line to begin service in Los Angeles is the Gold Line, which operates a C-shaped route between Pasadena and East Los Angeles, via downtown Los Angeles. The Gold Line right-of-way consists of underground, at-grade, and elevated segments, and connections are available the Union Station for the Red Line and Purple Line subway as well as Metrolink commuter rail service and Amtrak intercity rail service.

Subway

In 1993, the Red Line subway opened for passenger service, becoming the first subway line in Los Angeles and the second heavy-rail subway (after the BART system in San Francisco) on the West Coast. The line is fully underground (except for the railcar storage yards and maintenance facilities), and runs from Union Station downtown to North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley, via Wilshire Boulevard, Vermont Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard, and a segment that passes under the Santa Monica Mountains.

In 2006, a short branch of the Red Line that continued west under Wilshire Boulevard was re-branded the Purple Line. The Red Line and Purple Line share the same right-of-way from Union Station to Wilshire / Vermont. Traveling west, Red Line trains branch off to the north under Vermont Avenue, while Purple Line trains continue west and serve two additional stations. Current plans call for an extension of the Purple Line west to Santa Monica.

The following amateur video shows an arriving Red Line train, a brief ride on board, and a departing train at Hollywood / Vine:

Commuter Rail

The Los Angeles region is served by the Metrolink commuter rail service, which operates seven commuter rail lines, most of which terminate at historic Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. (The Inland Empire – Orange County Line is the only line that doesn’t directly serve downtown Union Station, but runs between San Bernardino and Oceanside, via Anaheim.) Metrolink operates on tracks shared by Amtrak and freight railroads, using bi-level passenger coaches pulled by diesel locomotives.

Buses and BRT

In addition to local bus service, LA Metro operates a number of express, limited-stop, and bus rapid transit (BRT) services. The Metro Rapid provides limited-stop, high-capacity service along many of the city’s major commercial thoroughfares, while Metro Liner service offers true BRT service in two corridors: The Orange Line that feeds into the North Hollywood station on the Red Line subway, and the Silver Line that operates on a route roughly parallel and to the west of the Blue Line. The Orange Line primarily uses a dedicated transitway, while the Silver Line utilizes high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on the I-10 and 110 freeways.

In addition to bus service provided by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), a number of other municipal transit agencies also operate bus service in the Los Angeles region.

Future Los Angeles

Although Los Angeles lacked any form of rail transit during the bulk of the post-war years and freeways now criss-cross the region, the central core still owes its urban form largely to the streetcars that once plied down the city’s major boulevards. Combined with chronic traffic congestion and ever-rising gas prices, Los Angeles is primed to utilize the full benefits of rail transit. In the blog Human Transit, Jarrett Walker ponders if Los Angeles might be the next great transit metropolis:

Los Angeles may still seem hopelessly car-dominated today, but it’s fortunate in its urban structure, in ways that make it a smart long term bet as a relatively sustainable city, at least in transport terms.   Two things in particular: (a) the presence of numerous major centres of activity scattered around the region, and (b) the regular grid of arterials, mostly spaced in a way that’s ideal for transit, that covers much of the city, offering the ideal infrastucture for that most efficient of transit structures: a grid network.

Because Los Angeles is a vast constellation of dense places, rather than just a downtown and a hinterland, it’s full of corridors where there is two-way all-day flow of demand, the ideal situation for cost effective, high quality transit.  In this, Los Angeles is more like Paris than it is like, say, New York.  Much of the core area between downtown and Santa Monica is covered by a braid of major boulevards, all with downtown at one end and the naturally dense coastal strip at the other, every one a potentially great transit market given appropriate protection from traffic.  Near the coast, the massive dense nodes of Westwood/UCLA and Century City (and to a lesser extent Santa Monica and Venice) offer further anchoring to the western end of these markets.  On a smaller scale, similar anchors are found throughout much of the region.  While gathering people to a transit stop will still be difficult, it will be especially easy to grow an everywhere-to-everywhere network in Los Angeles, becuase of these patterns.

The entire article is well worth a read. The author goes on to cite how Angelenos have come to fully embrace the potential of public transit, and a popular mayor has expended considerable political capital on ambitious proposals for public transit projects in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles 30/10 plan (image: The Transport Politic. Click for a larger version.)

In 2008, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure R with 67.22% of the vote, which raised the county sales tax by one-half a cent to fund transit projects throughout the region. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been advocating for changes to federal law that would allow the LACMTA to borrow capital funding from the federal government, to be paid back over time with future Measure R revenues. If enacted, this would not only allow 30 years worth of transit infrastructure to be completed within ten years, but also have wide-ranging impacts for capital funding in cities far beyond Los Angeles, including Cincinnati.

As a result of the passing of Measure R and other initiatives, a number of ambitious rail transit projects are either under construction or are in active planning phases. A few of the most prominent projects are briefly outlined below:

Under Construction

The first phase of the Expo Line, the region’s newest light rail line, is currently about 90% complete, and is expected to begin revenue service in late 2011. Phase two is expected to be operational by early 2015. This will be the first rail service from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica since 1953, and utilizes the former Air Line of the old Pacific Electric Railway. The Expo Line will share the Blue Line’s right-of-way into downtown Los Angeles and connect with the Red Line and Purple Line subway at Metro Center.

The Foothill Extension is a planned 23.9-mile extension of the Gold Line east from Pasadena to Montclair. The route follows the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway right-of-way, and includes 12 new stations. The ceremonial groundbreaking for the first phase of the project was held in June 2010.

On the Boards

The Subway Mayor (image: Ted Soqui / LA Weekly)

Mayor Villaraigosa’s top-priority transit project is an extension of the Purple Line subway west from its current terminus at Wilshire / Western to Santa Monica. Dubbed the “Subway to the Sea”, the project would entail 12-14 miles of new subway tunnels and twelve new stations.

The Crenshaw Corridor is a proposed light rail line through southwest Los Angeles from the Purple Line subway to the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The 8.5-mile route would include ten new stations and provide connections to the Purple Line, Expo Line, and Green Line.

The Regional Connector is a proposed extension of the Blue Line and Expo Line subway north and east from their current terminus at Metro Center to the Gold Line at Little Tokyo. In addition to providing three new light rail stations in downtown Los Angeles, the project would allow direct transfers between the Gold Line and the Blue / Expo Lines, as well as through-routing of the Blue Line and Expo Line trains onto the Gold Line right-of-way. Instead of terminating downtown, the Blue Line can continue to Pasadena and beyond, and the Expo Line can provide crosstown service between Santa Monica and East Los Angeles.

In addition to various proposals involving subways and light rail lines, a modern streetcar has been proposed that would link several destinations in downtown Los Angeles, not unlike the proposed streetcar for Cincinnati’s downtown and Over-the-Rhine neighborhoods. The project has attracted the support of a wide range of downtown interests, and as of this writing, a range of proposed routes through downtown have been narrowed down to seven possible routes for further consideration.

Lessons for Cincinnati

With continued funding and political support, Los Angeles is poised to shed its image as an automobile-dependent urban wasteland. During my visit last month, I was surprised at how much of downtown Los Angeles’s historic fabric is still intact, and at how walkable many areas were. A number of transit-oriented, mixed-us developments have sprung up around existing transit stations, and if even a fraction of the proposed transit projects come to fruition, the possibilities for transit-oriented development in Los Angeles are infinite. As Jarrett Walker writes:

Densities in many places are lower than ideal, but Los Angeles, more than any city in the world, has a virtually inexhaustable supply of infill opportunities, even if typical middle-class and wealthy suburbs are set aside.  If a divine hand prohibited the paving of one more square inch of California, the Los Angeles region would keep growing without a pause.

What does this mean for Cincinnati? For starters, if the federal government enacts Mayor Villaraigosa’s 30/10 recommendations, the effects could be far-reaching for every American city. If a future regional transit plan like the 2002 Metro Moves plan were to be enacted by Cincinnati-area voters, we could see completion of a regional rail system within a decade as opposed to the original 30-year plan.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the example of Los Angeles proves that no city is beyond redemption when it comes to building a viable mass transit system. Opponents of progress in Cincinnati like to claim that Cincinnati is somehow different from other cities, that “it will never work here.” The truth is, Cincinnati has urban assets that Los Angeles could only dream of having, such as:

  • A dense, vibrant urban core that provides a natural hub for any large-scale regional transit system.
  • Existing transit-ready rights-of-way, such as the Oasis Line, Central Parkway subway, and Riverfront Transit Center that are already poised to be utilized in a future regional rail system.
  • A relatively compact central basin with historic neighborhoods that are already naturally suited for walkable streets and transit-oritented development.
  • A diverse array of walkable neighborhood business districts that serve as natural locations for secondary transit nodes and the associated transit-oriented development those nodes invariably bring.
  • Significantly lower construction costs in a relatively stable seismic zone, compared to Southern California.

If rail transit can be made to work in Los Angeles, it can be made to work anywhere, including here. The challenges we face in doing so are not technical or geographic challenges, but political. In Los Angeles it took a generation of unbridled freeway construction and chronic traffic congestion to awaken in the populace the potential of rail-based mass transit. A similar awakening is beginning to take hold in Cincinnati, but we face a determined opposition by forces who have a vested self-interest in maintaining the failed status quo. It will take organization and effort to overcome those forces, but it can happen. Cincinnati’s future as an economically viable city depends upon it.

Further Reading

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) (official site)

LA Metro: Los Angeles Transit History

LA Metro: In the Works 

Metrolink (official site)

City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation (official site)

goLAstreetcar: Los Angeles Streetcar, Inc.

Los Angeles Transportation Headlines

The Transit Coalition: Getting Southern California Moving

Move LA: Building a Comprehensive Transportation System in Los Angeles County

Los Angles Transit History Page

Curbed LA: Los Angeles Neighborhood and Real Estate Blog

NYCsubway.org: Los Angeles area transit photos

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What COAST’s Anti-Rail Charter Amendment Really Means

Cincinnatians for Progress has posted a note on their Facebook page explaining the consequences of COAST’s anti-rail charter amendment, should it be approved by voters in November. With permission, I’ve reproduced it here in its entirety:

Take a close look at the language of the new Charter Article XVI that voters are being asked to approve. Its sponsors claim they want to stop the current project. In fact, this amendment would do much more than that.

What it says: “The City shall not spend or appropriate any money on the design, engineering, construction or operation of a Streetcar System, or any portion thereof.”

What it means: This phrase prevents the city from spending any money on anything related to preparing any kind of passenger rail transit in Cincinnati.

What it says: “Further, the City shall not incur any indebtedness or contractual obligations for the purpose of financing, designing, engineering, construction or operating of a Streetcar System, or any portion thereof.”

What it means: This language would make it impossible to accept federal grants, to issue bonds, to enter into public-private partnerships for passenger rail. Even private investment in a rail system in the city limits would be illegal.

What it says: “This Amendment applies from the date it is certified to the Charter, and will continue in effect until December 31, 2020.”

What it means: The arbitrary 10-year ban on preparation is designed to force new transit planning to start from square one in 2021. Because permanent infrastructure requires many years to develop, this language would guarantee Cincinnati sees no rail-based transit for a generation.

What it says: “For purposes of this Amendment, the term ‘Streetcar System’ means a system of passenger vehicles operated on rails constructed primarily in existing public rights of way …”

What it means: The term “streetcar system” in this amendment would ban all rail that runs in on Cincinnati streets or rights-of-way. That would prevent commuter rail and streetcars alike; even restoring the city’s historic inclines would be outlawed.

What it says: “…The term ‘City’ includes without limitation the City, the Manager, the Mayor, the Council, and the City’s various boards, commissions, agencies and departments …”

What it means: Under this language, even Cincinnati’s Metro system could not consider taking advantage of future national and regional funding programs.

What it says: “…The term ‘money’ means any money from any source whatsoever….”

What it means: This language would not only lock out local, state and federal funds, but make it illegal for corporations, non-profits and individuals to pay for rail-based transit.


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Monkeys on our Backs

(Image: Justin McElroy / spraygraphic.com)

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
– Isaac Asimov

Once again, the alliance of extremists who brought us the failed Issue 9 campaign has demonstrated they can’t take a hint. In 2009 their catchphrase was “We Demand a Vote!” This year it may as well be, “You voted the wrong way in 2009, stupid!”

As in 2009, the primary instigators are the Tea Party-affiliated COAST (“Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes”) and Chris Smitherman’s local branch of the NAACP. They are joined by the bosses of the police and firefighters unions as well as Westwood Concern.

Their reasons for opposing the streetcar are varied. In theory, COAST sees the streetcar as an example of wasteful government spending, but this conveniently ignores the streetcar’s projected 2.7 to 1.0 ratio of Benefits to Costs, and when it comes to unnecessary freeway projects that make the streetcar budget look like pocket change, COAST’s silence is deafening. If COAST had any intellectual honesty they’d be applauding the city for finding common-sense ways to improve the city’s business climate and strengthen its tax base without raising tax rates, but given how their Tea Party friends are largely financed by an oil company and how COAST endorsed a gubernatorial candidate who promptly placed a former asphalt industry lobbyist as director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, one doesn’t need to look far to realize there will never be a rail proposal that COAST likes nor a freeway proposal that COAST hates, regardless of the costs or merits.

Chris Smitherman, for his part, has his own agenda. As Mayor Mallory’s political arch-rival and self-appointed spokesman for African Americans in Cincinnati, he can be counted on to provide knee-jerk opposition to any idea that might be the least bit sensible. A regional waterworks district? Nay. A cost-saving merger between the Cincinnati Police Department and the Hamilton County Sherif? Nay. Having been voted off City Council in 2005 after only a single term, Smitherman must now resort to bizarre conspiracy theories and fear-mongering in order to remain relevant. Ever eager for a ratings boost, our local media is all too happy to provide people like Smitherman and COAST a megaphone that far outsizes their actual constituency.

Westwood Concern and the local public safety unions oppose the streetcar based on the fallacy that capital funds for the streetcar can somehow be shifted toward operational expenses for public safety. This ignores the much-overlooked fact that capital funds cannot be used for operational expenses, and that the most effective way to increase public safety is to revitalize our neighborhoods with improved public transit. And let us not forget that this special election in itself will cost the city nearly half a million dollars of operational funds that could otherwise be spent on public safety.

"We believe in nothing."

While their anti-streetcar alliance is little more than a marriage of convenience (since when has COAST ever been a friend of organized labor, particularly for public sector employees?), what the streetcar naysayers have in common is their nihilistic belief that Cincinnati is a failed, dysfunctional city that isn’t worth the effort of saving. The vast majority of COAST’s membership is based in the suburbs, where the city is typically looked upon as a dumping ground for criminals and the indigent. That stereotype is apparently fine with Smitherman, who has shown himself to be perfectly willing to exploit poverty and crime in the urban core for his own political gain, while offering no solutions.

While Mayor Mallory and a new generation of civic leaders have decided that our notorious “We can’t do that in Cincinnati” modus operandi is no longer acceptable, the naysayers are perfectly content with the dysfunctional status quo that has defined the city during the post-war period. The naysayers have no ideas of their own, but they furiously shout down anybody else’s ideas. They build nothing, but they fight like hell to tear down what others work hard to build. Their biggest fear is a healthy, vibrant urban core that will further discredit their world view and further erode their power base. Their political fortunes depend upon the streetcar’s failure.

The proposed Issue 9 charter amendment in 2009 would have made any investment in passenger rail transit all but impossible by requiring a public vote before any such expenditures are made. That amendment was soundly defeated at the ballot box, the voters correctly deciding that long-term infrastructure planning is best done via representative democracy instead of mob rule. This year’s charter amendment will go a step further, and explicitly outlaw any passenger rail investment for the next ten years. Not only will this include the streetcar, but also any form of regional light rail, commuter rail, or intercity rail. “We Demand a Vote” has become “We Demand You Sit in Traffic Until 2021″.

With your help, though, this effort will meet the same fate as Issue 9. Here’s what you can do:

Write Letters

Opponents of progress are waging a campaign to force the State of Ohio to revoke two promised grants for the streetcar project, despite the fact that the streetcar is the highest-scoring project on ODOT’s Major New Program List (PDF).

Your letter or email on behalf of the Cincinnati Streetcar needs to be received by the state’s Transportation Review Advisory Council during the Public Comment period which ends Friday, February 11th. It’s important that the comments received are positive and stress the need to fund the two separate streetcar allocations included in the draft-list. They are:

  • $35 million in Construction Funding for “Cincinnati Streetcar Phase 1″
  • $1.8 million in Preliminary Engineering funding for the “Cincinnati Uptown Streetcar”

Comments can be submitted in two ways:

By regular mail to:
Ohio Department of Transportation
attn: Ed Kagel, TRAC Coordinator
1980 W. Broad Street
Columbus, OH 43223

By email to:
TRAC@dot.state.oh.us

Register to Vote

According to streetcar proponent John Schneider, “This election will probably be decided by fewer than 25,000 voters, fewer than one in ten Cincinnatians, so your involvement has a lot of leverage… For starters, make sure anyone you know who might be inclined to sign the petition reads it very carefully. Second, make sure you are registered at the correct polling place and make sure any Cincinnati-resident supporters you know are similarly registered. This will be a game of inches, won with lots of individual efforts.”

Check the Hamilton County Board of Elections site for voter registration information.

Donate and Volunteer for Cincinnatians for Progress

The following message was sent to to the CFP mailing list last week from co-chair Rob Richardson:

I am sending this email as an invitation to join me and many others from our community in serving on the host committee for Cincinnatians for Progress’ “Get on Board ” event at historic Grammer’s in OTR on Wednesday, February 16th, 6-8 pm. [Grammer's is located on the southeast corner of Walnut and Liberty Streets.]

I am asking you to not only join us on February 16th but to also be an instigator for progress because I believe you care about the future of Cincinnati, which is greatly dependent upon preserving transportation options in the best interest of our region.

To sign up as a Get on Board Host, please email cincinnatiansforprogress@gmail.com or make your donation to CFP and designate “host” in the comments field. To sign up as a Get on Board Host, please email cincinnatiansforprogress@gmail.com or make your donation to CFP and designate “host” in the comments field.

By committing as a host, we ask you to consider contributing $100 and/or recruit 5 people to attend the event on February 16th. An official invitation will be made available to all confirmed hosts within the next few days.If you cannot host, please consider giving a donation of $25, $35, or $50 Donate to CFP

Our Get on Board event is an opportunity to make a statement and tell the naysayers that not only did we defeat their ill-framed intentions a la Issue 9 in November 2009, but to remind them we are not going to allow them to steamroll our community.  This new Round 2 anti progress charter amendment will have even more damaging effects than Issue 9 if passed and would permanently damage our City’s ability to pursue any passenger rail transportation and destroy thousands of new good paying jobs for Cincinnati.

Help us Stop this dangerous petition in its tracks.

Thank you for your consideration! I hope you will join us.

Update: This version of the article corrects the date of the Issue 9 defeat and clarifies the streetcar’s projected cost-benefit ratio.

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