Enquirer failing to educate Cincinnatians on streetcar issue

P. Casey Coston lives in North Avondale and works as an attorney.  This op-ed piece was written for UrbanCincy as a follow-up to his op-ed piece that ran in the Enquirer on May 28, 2010.

Last week, the Enquirer trumpeted a privately commissioned poll with a headline screaming “Poll: Most Oppose Streetcars—Enquirer Survey Shows 2:1 Against $128 Million Project.” For anyone who made even a cursory reading of the polling data, the headline was patently misleading. Not unexpectedly, the Enquirer’s curious and novel attempt at polling the public with regard to capital infrastructure projects gave birth to a maelstrom of criticism, both in the general public as well as an overheated blogosphere, all of which left the reeling local paper of record with some serious s’plaining to do. The scrambling attempts at damage control, including a tail-grabbing attempt at the Twitter-tiger, ultimately concluded in a somewhat tepid mea culpa in Wednesday’s Enquirer editorial, as streetcar proponents and local bloggers galvanized in an energetically empowered voice of protest.

Indeed, in analyzing the polling data, one could pretty much go in the exact opposite direction of the Enquirer headlines, leading to any number of pro-streetcar conclusions. For example, as demonstrated by an analysis in the excellent CincyStreetcar blog,  a more apt and stirring headline would have been “According To Enquirer Poll, Cincinnati Streetcar Will Earn In Excess of $20 Million Profit Annually.” This was based on the number of poll respondents who stated they would ride the streetcar, when calculated on an annualized basis, taking into account the farebox revenues and operating costs.

The source of the outcry was both the erroneous spin that the headlines trumpeted, when coupled with a second, insult-to-wrongful-injury article indicating the poll “buoyed streetcar opponents.” For this, the Enquirer speed-dialed the eminently quoteworthy ex-Councilman and ex-Congressman Tom Luken, whom the Enquirer reflexively runs to as a source of “Loyal Opposition” to the streetcar project. A note about Mr. Luken. I have debated him regarding the streetcar on the steps of City Hall. I have sat next to him as we gave testimony at numerous hearings on the streetcar. I am certain that, over the years, he has served his constituents loyally, competently and to the best of his abilities. But let’s be honest folks, to be painfully candid, Mr. Luken’s arguments have been incoherent at best, and “distortions of the truth” (to put it mildly) at worst. He has continually stated blatant misrepresentations when arguing against the streetcar (“it will cost $2, maybe 3 billion,” when, actually, the first phase is $128 million). Nevertheless, he seems to have carte blanche and remains unchallenged in the eyes of the Enquirer reporters.

Simply stated, Mr. Luken, albeit both folksy and apparently, in some circles, beloved, is not a credible advocate, and to continually give him a megaphone with which to project his unchallenged and ill-informed views is a disservice to reasoned debate. At the last City Council, Mr. Luken derided streetcar supporters to anyone who would listen, branding the 29 citizens who spoke in support (versus two, including Luken, against) as the “children’s brigade.” When I challenged him on this, noting that the supporters ranged from ages 17 to 77, he accused me of “profiteering” off the project. When I suggested that some of them were recent college graduates or soon-to be grads who we would like to retain in the city, he snorted, on multiple occasions, “let ‘em go. We don’t need them here.” All of this conversation was within ready earshot of the Enquirer reporter. Where was that quote in the next day’s paper?

Nobody is asking the Enquirer to blindly embrace the streetcars—hard questions should be posed–although balanced coverage wouldn’t be too much to ask. For example, hard questions should also be asked of Mr. Luken. What empirically proven solution does he propose instead to grow our city’s tax base and revenues? Does he really want college graduates to leave Cincinnati and not return? Where does the $3 billion cost he cited for streetcars come from? Does he feel we should vote on this? Should we vote on the Brent Spence Bridge? How about the Waldvogel Viaduct? How about new curb cuts in my neighborhood?

Last Wednesday, in a classic “wag the dog” scenario, on the same day as an excellent CityBeat expose by Kevin Osborne, the Enquirer published its mea (kinda) culpa editorial, replete with a raft of pro-streetcar letters meant to mollify conspiracy-minded streetcar supporters (while at the same time running an editorial demeaning the proponent’s cause as bordering on zealotry). In so doing, the paper did not really admit any bias or wrongdoing, but rather nobly seized the mantle of supposed “objective” oversight. Explaining further, the Enquirer intoned that it was not opposed to the streetcar per se, but merely there to ask the “serious questions.” Additionally, the Enquirer concluded, any complaints about the incongruous polling results should be laid directly at the city’s feet, as streetcar proponents at City Hall have not “communicated a vision for the streetcar’s purpose and promise strongly or clearly enough to the larger community.”

Oh please. Such a transparent and easy dodge is patently disingenuous. The city has put out videos, press conferences, reports upon reports. The city has an elaborate and informative website full of data, links and related information (a site which, I might add, would answer/rebut virtually all of the anti-streetcar comments spewed by the Enquirer comments board klavern on a daily basis). The city even trundled a dog and pony show around town, holding a series of open houses in various neighborhoods in order to further educate the public (even if the “larger community” didn’t care enough to turn out).

What has the Enquirer done to educate the “larger community”? Quoting Tom Luken repeatedly as some solemn voice of reason, while at times entertaining, doesn’t count. Obviously, the Enquirer could do a lot more to get a balanced message out if it really wanted. Not pro or against, but basic information that would allow rational, sentient beings to make an informed decision. The paper actually did just that last Fall in the Forum coverage prior to the Issue 9 election, with a mostly excellent and informative selection of articles. But far and away the coverage of choice since then seems to be hit pieces, bereft of substantive content, which instead give us rambling rhetoric from Granpa Luken with zero in the way of a counter from the other side, all while posturing and cloaking it in their noble goal of simply asking the, tsk tsk, “hard questions.” Seriously…when has the Enquirer ever asked “serious questions” of the opponents? Streetcar opponents get away with absolute flat out lies, and when has the Enquirer ever asked a “hard question” of them?

It is clear from the bulk of the letters to the editor (last Wednesday’s manufactured showing notwithstanding), as well the downright frightening online comments, that the majority of the Enquirer’s readers are woefully ignorant about the streetcar proposal. The fact that the streetcar is a proven tool for re-energizing the urban core, in the process connecting our city’s two largest employment centers, promoting development and expanding the tax base via increased revenues and residents, is lost on a large chunk of its readership. Instead letters and commenters talk about a “choo choo trolley to nowhere,” the “homeless trolley” or a “jail train.” Such comments, while exposing the author’s ignorance, also hint at some of the more naked and ugly prejudices that lie beneath. If the comments are any example of the message the Enquirer is communicating, then it looks like they might want to re-think that message.

Moreover, the Enquirer has the temerity to criticize streetcar supporters for not “communicating” better? The poll represented some incredibly positive news, seismic shifts even, with regard to the streetcar and its prospects. But it’s difficult to get that message out when you’re pushing an engine-less Skoda streetcar up Sycamore with Tom Luken and Margaret Buchanan on the roof shouting at you with bullhorns to turn around and shut it down. Sorry, but that dog won’t hunt.

If the Enquirer is so interested in “educating” the “larger community” on this issue, maybe they should be a bit more pro-active…devote a column a week to a pro/con. The uproar and about face this week proved that alternative news sources can and should be heard. Monopolistic in business is not monotheistic in beliefs, and not everyone in this town needs to genuflect at the altar of the almighty Enquirer. Perhaps let a streetcar blogger be part of the co-opted realm of the (seemingly) Enquirer-subsumed local blogosphere.

Bottom line–it is disingenuous to say “you’re not doing enough to get the message out there,” and then thwart that very message at every turn.

Sorry Enquirer. Not good enough.

  • Well done, sir. It would be one thing if the Enquirer simply spoke out against the streetcar on its editorial page, and left it at that. We may disagree with their editorial board, but at least that’s their prerogative. What’s frustrating and infuriating, though, is when the Enquirer so clearly slants their supposed regular “news” coverage in a manner befitting Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. (And how ironic that Tom Luken skipped out on his streetcar debate with Laure Quinlivan because “he didn’t have transportation” to the Channel 12 studios.) Thanks for helping bring these issues to light.

  • “let ‘em go. We don’t need them here.”
    Its that kind of off the cuff comment that lets you know Lukun and the other Keystone Cops of politics have totaly turned off their brains.
    Lets just build roads and bridges and casino’s everywhere, they somehow pay for themselves don’t they?

  • John Yung

    Kudos to Mr. Coston for this well worded response to the Enquirer’s continuous attempt at obfuscating the facts on the streetcar issue. The Enquirer’s short term gamble may boost their suburban demographic readership numbers but will ultimately force the more progressive populace to choose and support more balanced and factually informed media. Lets hope the Enquirer can remember their Journalism 101 before they doom themselves to a life of irrelevancy a la Tom Luken.

  • heck, just posting pictures of the things would be a huge step in the right direction for the Enquirer.
    I don’t see how the obviously wrong comments that people leave on their website doesn’t inspire the editors to explain the facts in articles.

  • Mr. Coston touched on a few items here of interest. One in particular is the failure of the Enquirer to properly educate the public on this issue. As the primary news source for the Cincinnati region, the Enquirer has a responsibility to be both a watch dog and a public informant. Unfortunately, it appears as though the Enquirer is more interested in generating web traffic and readership through sensationalist means rather than by offering up the information that people should be receiving.

    It may not be sexy, but I think everyone would be better served with slightly less reality television coverage, and slightly more investigative reporting on important issues like the Cincinnati Streetcar.

  • Erin Steffens

    As a “non-planner” who’s supportive of the streetcar project, I just wanted to say THANK YOU to both Mr. Simes, Mr. Coston and everyone else who is working hard to make sure the *facts* are out there, as well as efforts being made to encourage the Enquirer to rid themselves of bias. Their shoddy reporting, coupled with their absolutely horrible online editing (typos, grammar, etc) has been quite a disappointment.

  • Thanks to both of you for advocating the proper message here. Lots of us here in Indy watching you guys!

  • Joe

    A few points that I imagine will be unpopular on this blog, but are worth mentioning:

    1.) 61% of voters oppose borrowing for the project. More oppose than support it, even in the question where no cost is mentioned.

    2.) Despite public opposition, Council overwhelming supports the project. This is likely due to their connections to the businesses and landowners that capture the bulk of the benefits of the streetcar project..

    3.) Under the economic study’s assumptions, the streetcar will opperate at a large loss, even after the significant capital expenditure. It will be much less efficient than additional bus service.

  • Thanks Curt. One thing I think that can be learned from Cincinnati’s effort is that rail transit advocates must be tenacious in their efforts. Public messaging, public involvement and accountability from the relevant parties (politicians, media, etc) are all musts.

    This is a tough fight, but as has been seen elsewhere, once you introduce rail transit to a region it is almost always a big hit with the people there. I think that is why there is such a big fight up front…it’s a game changer and many of those that make up the establishment do not want to see things change, because quite honestly, it doesn’t suit them well to have things change in a system that is currently working for their self interests.

  • Jon

    Joe,

    Your second and third points supporting documentation of any kind.

  • Joe,

    The streetcar will not make a profit from fares collected at the door — no one is claiming that it will. The streetcar will make a profit for the city because it will attract development, including new businesses and residents, to the city. Vacant lots and parking lots along the line will see new construction, and vacant buildings will be renovated.

    I disagree with your point that council only supports the streetcar because of their own conflicts of interest. Our council members who support the streetcar do so because they have seen its effects in other cities, and they believe the streetcar will revitalize our urban core, which will benefit our entire city through increased tax revenues.

  • Joe

    Jon, 2.) is my guess why council overwhelmingly supports this plan with limited public support. It’s special interest spending. I can’t see into the minds of councilmembers, but I think it’s worth considering (especially when some of them own major real-estate companies that will greatly benefit). 3.) is available from the economic studies on cincinnati-oh.gov

    Travis, I think this is the key point that should be discussed. The route will definitely benefit from increased transportation, but is it worth it cost/benefit-wise? And will that development just be reshuffled from other areas of Cincinnati and not truly be new development? …Spending on streetcars must necessarily be offset by spending cuts elsewhere or tax increases (More likely cuts, given the city’s recent response to the budget crunch). …A good way to view it is as a tradeoff between more bus service and a streetcar. We know that buses are a much more cost efficient form of transportation. If we spend money on the streetcar, property values along the route will benefit, because they will be relatively privileged transportation-wise. But, the other parts of the city will be hurt more than the route will benefit, because they will see cuts in more efficient more valuable services.

    I’ve gone from undecided to opposed with the more I read about streetcar projects. My opinion is that if Cincinnati sinks money into at a streetcar system, in ten years it will find itself with a larger fiscal problem, a marginally worse transportation system, and relatively less competitive.

  • Tim

    The basic problem remains. Even assuming every one of the streetcar supporting claims are true… That lots of people will ride it, that development will be spurred, that young professionals will be attracted to downtown and so forth… the project is still a bad idea for a city facing a massive deficit, a huge problem with its pension obligations, and other high priority needs. Cincinnati should not be taking on more debt.

  • Tim & Joe,

    The problem with your arguments is that you’re viewing this as a zero-sum game. “If we build the streetcar, we have to take funds away from something else.” That’s simply not true.

    If Cincinnati can grow its population, we are increasing our tax income without raising taxes. These additional funds can pay for the streetcar’s operating costs and provide additional operating budget dollars for other city services. The streetcar’s construction is going to be funded by city capital funds (as well as federal sources, which would go to another city if we turned it down). What other capital investment could we make that would actually make our city more attractive, more competitive, and help get us out of our operating budget situation?

  • Tim & Joe,
    How can you say the people don’t support it?
    Issue 9 was crushed.
    A mayoral candidate against the streetcar lost in a landslide against a guy for it who didn’t even campaign.
    We elected a city council, including one candidate who’s whole platform was the streetcar. Inside the city there is huge support for the streetcar.
    As foir taking on debt, how do you think capital projects are completed?
    If the streetcar isn’t built that money doesn’t exist, it can’t be used anywhere else.
    So, name one other project that will generate the income for the city that the streetcar will?

  • Joe:

    I understand where you’re coming from about the pension obligations and the need to not issue more debt. However, it is a regular act of government to issue bonds for capital projects. Every city, everywhere does it all the time to build roads, schools, police/fire stations, parking garages, parks and more.

    In the case of the $64M in bonds being issued for the Cincinnati Streetcar project, $11M is from the sale of the Blue Ash Airport (not really new debt since the asset is their backing it) and another $25M is from Tax Increment Financing which will be paid out through the property tax gains along the streetcar line. That leaves us with just $28M of “general obligations” which come from the City’s capital budget for project’s just like this which can not be used to help solve the City’s pension issues or pay police officers.

  • Jason

    Wonderful write up. Thank you for your articulate and well researched commentary. Let’s hope the Enquirer actually listens a little, although I’m not holding my breath.

  • Jason

    To Joe and Tim, You are being somewhat contradictory in your opposition. One one hand you are saying you don’t think the system will provide any benefit to the city and end up costing us too much, while on the other hand you say that council is trying to profit from the system because they own property on the route, thereby admitting that property values (and tax revenue) will go up as a result of te system being built.
    Additionally, you worry that the system has too many other “high priority” needs to take care of first. How would you suggest they pay for these other needs? They lack money because they lack a good tax paying base of residents and businesses. They need to attract more tax paying entities. Streetcrs have been proven to do this. The subsidies required to operate the system will be negligible when compared to the huge economic gains. Even highly conservative estimates show a much better return on the investment then any other possible city project.
    More evidence that it won’t work is needed if you are going to convince me that we shouldn’t build it now.

  • One more time …

    On Page 3 of the economists’ study of the streetcar’s worthiness for investment, it says: that the increased economic development gained on account of the presence of the streetcar is new to the city, not simply shifted from another part of the city.

    The study concludes that the streetcar’s monetized stream of benefits compared to its stream of costs, all discounted to Present Value at the non-inflationary government interest rate (considered to be 4%), yields a Benefit/Cost Ration of $2.70 of benefits for every $1.00 of costs.

    That’s the way it is, sports fans.

  • Howard Sloane

    Tom Rubin!? Who invited HIM to the party? He’s also been attacking Portland, Oregon, one of America’s greatest rail transit success stories, with such made-up hokum. Portland is a national model of excellence and success in both urban planning and public transportation and Rubin and his cohorts have tried to make it a primary target of their ongoing jihad against Smart Growth and urban transit. Rubin and fellow anti-transit, anti-planning, pro-sprawl activist Randal O’Toole are sponsored by the extremist rightwing Cato institute propaganda mill.