Analysis: Kasich, TRAC, played politics, “burned” Cincinnati

In 2010 there was no reason to believe that Cincinnati’s streetcar project was in jeopardy, as all capital funds had been identified and future casino revenues were expected to cover annual operations costs. Late in the year I expressed my optimism to a seasoned local preservationist, whose terse response took me by surprise: “You guys haven’t been burned yet”.

On Tuesday April 12, Cincinnati finally got burned. ODOT’s nine-member Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) approved a budget that reallocated $52 million of federal funds from the Cincinnati Streetcar project to a variety of minor upstate projects. This decision came just five months after TRAC identified Cincinnati’s streetcar as the state’s highest-ranking project.

The “burning” actually started in March, when state representative Shannon Jones (R-Springboro) introduced an amendment to Ohio’s biennial transportation bill that read, “No state or federal funds may be encumbered, transferred, or spent pursuant to this or any other appropriations act for the Cincinnati Streetcar Project.” This two-pronged attack on the state’s allocation of federal funds to Cincinnati’s streetcar project was the thinly veiled directive of John Kasich, Ohio’s newly elected Republican governor.

For those who attended the April 12, 2011 TRAC meeting at ODOT headquarters in Columbus, Kasich’s fingerprints were obvious not just by the actions of TRAC appointees, but by the language and tone of ODOT staffers. The two-hour meeting could best be described as a kangaroo court – its outcome was never in doubt, with five or more ODOT staffers and TRAC members reciting coached lines throughout.

The existence of Jones’ streetcar-killing state legislation provided cover for the day’s proceedings, but ODOT director and TRAC chair Jerry Wray and the staffers who work beneath him nevertheless concocted justification independent of what he duplicitously called “bad legislation”.

Funding for the Cincinnati Streetcar should be dropped, Wray and ODOT staffers argued, in favor of projects that promise to improve safety, especially two upstate railroad grade separation projects.

The grand orchestration of the meeting was not limited to Kasich-era appointees and ODOT staff; during public comments a fire chief remarked that five individuals had been killed at his area’s grade crossing since his service began some twenty years previous. His message was calculated: railroads are inherently unsafe, and modern streetcars, because they run on rails at-grade mixed with vehicular traffic, are dangerous to motorists and pedestrians.

A side show to this circus was the statement made by Jack Marchbanks, who was appointed to TRAC after the March 22, 2011 meeting. Other TRAC members didn’t even know his name, but he nevertheless arrived at the April 12th meeting prepared with props — a stack of CD’s and paperwork from a 2007 Columbus light rail study — to justify his vote against the Cincinnati Streetcar. Smiling, he insinuated that the legacy of the four-year Cincinnati Streetcar effort would ultimately be a similarly forgotten stack of CD’s and spiral bound reports.

Watching the morning’s proceedings like a hawk was Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory, who has been the face of the streetcar project since 2008. As a state senator in the late 1990’s, he was involved in the legislation that established TRAC in 1997. Its formation coincided with a 6-cent increase in Ohio’s gasoline tax that added hundreds of millions to ODOT’s annual budget. TRAC intended to keep state representatives from directing pork projects to their districts, but last Tuesday Mallory was witness to its critical flaw: that TRAC’s chair is also ODOT’s director. Because Ohio’s governors appoint ODOT’s director, a sleazy appointee of Wray’s ilk is able to intimidate ODOT staff as well as shape the agenda of TRAC.

Much credit is due to Antoinette Selvey-Maddox, TRAC’s sole southwest Ohio representative. She was the only TRAC member to challenge the day’s prevailing winds – first questioning if there was any precedent for the state legislation that blocks state allocations of federal funds to the Cincinnati Streetcar, then introducing a motion that would have seen a separate vote introduced to the process regarding the streetcar project.

The appearance of the motion clearly disturbed chairman Wray – he was not certain that votes were sufficient to defeat it. In short order it was defeated 4-3, but we must wonder, if the entire nine-member TRAC had been attendance, would the outcome have been different (two of TRAC’s nine members were absent from the year’s most important meeting)? A minute after the failure of her motion, Selvey-Maddox cast the only vote in opposition to TRAC’s 2011 recommendations.

The configuration of the meeting bears some description: it was held in the same small basement room where TRAC usually meets, with room for few people other than ODOT staffers, speakers, and media. The roughly 75 Cincinnatians who traveled to Columbus were seated in a nearby room, out of sight of both TRAC members and the media.

They watched the meeting on closed-circuit television, with poor audio. Apparently the microphone of Selvey-Maddox was not turned on, or was not working well, and so those in the overflow room did not come to appreciate her actions. The absurdity of this situation could not have been better scripted – an auditorium which could have accommodated everyone sat unused directly across the hallway from TRAC’s meeting room.

Approximately 75 Cincinnatians made the trip to Columbus in support of the streetcar. Speaking on behalf of the project were Mayor Mark Mallory, councilwoman Roxanne Qualls, councilwoman Laure Quinlivan, Cincinnatians for Progress officer Rob Richardson, and representatives from Christ Hospital, Sibcy Cline Realtors, Bromwell’s, and the University of Cincinnati. Opponents filled just four of ten allotted speaking slots, and no other opponents appeared to have made the trip.

Although Tuesday’s actions are a setback, Cincinnati is expected to announce a revised streetcar plan this week. With zero funding available from Hamilton County, and presumably zero available from Ohio until Kasich leaves office in 2014 or 2018, the attraction of additional public funds will be limited to direct federal grants (such as the Urban Circulators grant) and new or expanded local sources.

Videos produced by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy. More exclusive videos from UrbanCincy can be viewed on YouTube.

  • John

    really…this is just SO sad! what is going on in Ohio?! how can this be allowed!?

    …let’s all drive out to our suburban home and…sit there!

    why doesn’t ohio realize that to be ‘cool’, young people need a reason to stay in the state and not flee to the coasts (or other countries!)?

  • J

    Kasich is obviously doing his best to make Ohio “cool” for young people.

    What an incompetent moron.

  • I’m disappointed but in a way maybe this will ultimately be better for Cincinnati. With no ties to the state the streetcar will operate freely with no strings attached to state funds.

  • It will be very interesting to see if any litigation comes out of all this. Clearly politics were being played, and given the point of TRAC, ethics violations were probably made as well.

    It appears that ODOT staff and several TRAC members are already feeling uneasy about the whole thing, but I guess they’re between a rock and a hard place. Go against King Kasich and get fired, or walk the line of ethics violations and risk tarnishing your career.

  • Pyjack

    Would anyone mind posting a link to the transportation legislation that Jones wrote?

  • @Pyjack: State representative Shannon Jones wrote a provision into the state’s recently passed biennial transportation budget. The added provision read exactly as quoted within this post.

  • Zack

    The one thing that the “cool” crowd can do is forget quickly (fast- what was the model of your first cell phone???).

    While its dirty and slimy how this all went down, the focus should be on the next steps and moving forward, supporting the businesses who have positioned themselves near the line, and cheering on the plan thats announced soon.

    If / when Kasich is proven wrong, then its just more fuel for the other candidates to run against him.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    The amendment is section SECTION 755.60.

  • Aaron Watkins

    I really hope that they can get the streetcar to go uptown, that part is CRUCIAL!!!! Seriously, the basin is flat, it is not difficult to walk, but the hill separating downtown and uptown is essentially an geographic barrier that keeps thousands of students from ever going downtown. Seriously, it needs to go up the hill, and it needs to be a part of the initial phase. A loop around downtown and will probably be under utilized.

  • crankyoldbitch

    This is all so shady. I’ve been surprised by Kasich. I knew he was conservative, but never put him in the category of radical right wingnut. Now we have our very own Scott Walker clone.

    I wonder if we’ll find the funds were reallocated to projects where contractors have a sweetheart deal on state contracts in return for Republican political contributions? ODOT contracting has been corrupt for decades. This is pure pork barrel politics; rewarding your friends with projects in their districts, and punishing your enemies by killing their projects.

    I may have questioned some of the hype surrounding this project, but Kasich’s actions are a obvious political hit job against Mark Mallory. The needs of the people of Cincinnati weren’t even considered, and the treatment of those that made the trip to the hearing was ridiculous.

    Urban Cincy has covered this better than any local media outlet. Even if I don’t always agree with your POV on an issue, I always read this blog for the real scoop on what’s going on. And, unlike the rest of the local media, you are always pushing for progress, instead of just plodding along w the status quo, the way Cincy has for years. You are always a fresh, positive voice, and I appreciate that.

  • @crankyoldbitch: Thanks for the kind words. Attempting to push the conversation forward is a foundational element of UrbanCincy, so I am very encouraged to hear that you think we are in fact achieving this at least to some extent.

  • grif

    Those of you living in the Eastern part of Hamilton county are in Shannon Jones’ district (7th District). Here is someone that represents part of the city of Cincinnati and she writes legislation that impacts her very own district. You better believe I am going to do what I can to make sure she isn’t re-elected.

  • Jack X

    This buffoon does realize that the generation coming up after him will be controlling the purse strings of his retirement, right? Kasich can keep his home in suburban Columbus. But let’s see if he’ll be able to afford the $12/gallon gas to fill up his “cool” SUV.

  • Dale Brown

    I think Kasich killed it to drum up support for his base in Cincinnati, so they would forget he’s screwing over the area with lack of funding for other projects. I think the streetcar is not the best approach, but Kasich directly impeding on a government entity who is built for the sole purpose of a fair, independent assessment is sad.