Urban Mass Transit Act of 1970 passed Cincinnati by, leaving current generations stranded

One-by-one, and with little fanfare, nearly every major American city which scrapped its streetcar and other rail transit lines mid-century has since 1970 built a new rail system of some kind. Between 1970 and 1990, new-start systems began operations in Washington, DC, Baltimore, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Atlanta, Buffalo, San Diego and Miami. Between 1990 and 2010, new-start systems were built in Denver, St. Louis, Seattle, Sacramento, Dallas, Houston, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and Phoenix.

As of 2011, Cincinnati is now the largest metropolitan area, with the exception of Detroit, with no rail transit whatsoever. Attempts to fund a regional rail transit system were defeated by Hamilton County voters in 1971, 1979, 1980, and 2002. Cincinnati’s modern streetcar plan, after winning at the polls in 2009, was fully funded in 2010 but faces yet another challenge from special interest groups in 2011.

Is there some physical reason why rail transit is poorly suited for Cincinnati, as its opponents have always contended? No – and the purpose of this article is to illustrate that Cincinnati is in fact much better suited than several cities that have recently built rail transit systems. In short, dating from Mayor Murray Seasongood’s assertion in the late 1920’s that Cincinnati was too small for a rapid transit system, a long line of Cincinnati politicians, usually self-proclaimed reformers or financial watchdogs have succeeded in diverting federal funds away from Cincinnati to less deserving cities.

How Atlanta received the Federal award to build MARTA
Thirteen years after passage of Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the Federal Government began funding construction of rapid transit systems. First was the Washington Metro, which received funding in 1969 and began construction shortly thereafter. The Urban Mass Transit Act of 1970 allocated $10 billion for the expansion and upkeep of existing systems in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and elsewhere, and funded approximately 80 percent of the cost of new rapid transit systems in Baltimore, Miami and Atlanta.

The award of nearly $1 billion, to Atlanta in the early 1970’s, stands as one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of public transportation in the United States. This enormous sum (equivalent to approximately $3 billion in 2011 dollars) was originally allocated to Seattle but was diverted after King County voters failed to approve a local tax to operate the planned system. Meanwhile, Atlanta-area voters did approve a transit sales tax, and due to a shortage of cities with such a tax, received the federal award and broke ground on MARTA in 1975.

The configuration of MARTA’s two lines, which radiate from downtown Atlanta in four directions, has been the subject of much criticism. Approximately four miles of subway construction in the Downtown and Midtown areas consumed enough of the project’s budget as to force cut backs in suburban areas. Outside of the Downtown tunnels, the lines typically follow freight rail lines, with inconveniently positioned stations. These poorly located stations have limited the system’s overall ridership by discouraging the construction of transit-oriented developments. Nevertheless, large transit-oriented developments (TODs) have been built at some MARTA stations, and system ridership is presently reported to be 260,000 each weekday.

So why did Cincinnati not apply for the award Atlanta received?
In 1970, Atlanta and Cincinnati were at the center of metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) identical in population. But Cincinnati was still much more densely built than Atlanta, and therefore much better suited for construction of a rapid transit system. Not only were Downtown and Over-the-Rhine much more active than they are now, but Cincinnati had numerous old neighborhood business districts that could have been saved from extinction with a subway station beneath their primary intersections.

A drawing for such a system was in fact made by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI). In anticipation of a UMTA application in 1971, OKI developed a 57-mile regional rapid transit plan that would have included at least 10 miles of subway construction in Cincinnati, a tunnel under the Ohio River, and more subway construction in Covington and Newport. Under UMTA guidelines, Cincinnati-area residents would only pay $100 million of its estimated $500 million capital cost.

But Cincinnati could not apply because UMTA awards were available only for those cities with publicly operated bus companies. In 1970 public transportation in Cincinnati was still provided by Cincinnati Transit, the bus-only descendant of the Cincinnati Street Railway, a situation that persisted after a countywide property tax that would have funded a public bus company failed in 1971. Cincinnati Transit was not put out of its misery until city voters approved an earnings tax in 1973 that enabled formation of Queen City Metro.

The .03 percent earnings tax was insufficient to cover the 20 percent local match required for UMTA awards, therefore, even after having established a public bus company, Cincinnati could still not apply for large capital awards without either a supplement or replacement of the city earnings tax. A pair of countywide transit taxes failed in 1979 and 1980, and therefore Cincinnatians paid in but received nothing from the Urban Mass Transit Assistance Act.

What is so frustrating about these events is that of the three cities that received new-start awards, only the traditional urban character of Baltimore in any way resembles that of Cincinnati. Miami and Atlanta, which by 1970 had just surpassed Cincinnati in size, experienced most of their growth in the automobile era and so could not possibly benefit similarly from construction of rapid transit systems. In short, federal awards weren’t made on the basis of suitability or cost-benefit, but rather who fought hardest for the money.

What if…?
Federal funding of rail transit declined after the exhaustion of UMTA funds in the late 1970’s. As such, the FTA has not funded any new-start rapid transit subway systems, with the exception of the Los Angeles Red and Purple Lines in the late 1980’s, and has shifted its funding to the less expensive light rail mode. In Cincinnati, regional transit system plans downsized from OKI’s 1971 Regional Rapid Transit plan to less ambitious light rail plans.

These light rail plans typically called for little or no tunnel construction. Unfortunately, this is not the best solution for Cincinnati, as many of its walkable neighborhood business districts can only be reached by the type of bored tunnels called for in OKI’s 1971 Regional Rapid Transit Plan. Since the FTA no longer funds extensive tunnel construction in mid-sized cities, Cincinnati has no hope of constructing such tunnels without a return of Federal funding for such projects to 1970’s levels.

Next time you are in Hyde Park Square, at Skyline Chili in Clifton, near St. Lawrence Church in Price Hill, or walking Covington’s MainStrasse Village, imagine being able to walk down a staircase to a subway train that could take you Downtown or to any of those other points in just a few minutes. The money was there for the taking back in the early 1970’s, and we could have gotten it just as easily as Atlanta did, but your parents and grandparents were tricked into voting against it.

Jake Mecklenborg is a transit historian and published author. His new book Cincinnati’s Incomplete Subway: The Complete History explores the strange and largely untold history of rail transit in the Queen City.