Business Development News Politics Transportation

UrbanCincy Q/A with candidates for Hamilton County Commissioner

Kevin Wright and David Ben collaborated on this UrbanCincy exclusive.

Next Tuesday, the much anticipated mid-term elections will be held across the country. Although there has been a lot of discussion about national politics and policy making in the mainstream press, there are many historic policy issues facing Hamilton County as well. These issues are as divisive as they are important, and they are going to require serious decisions by serious candidates.

The two men running for Hamilton County Commissioner – Chris Monzel (R) and Jim Tarbell (C) – represent two different approaches to county government. While they are both experienced politicians, they have two distinctly different visions for the future of Hamilton County.

UrbanCincy sent a list of questions to each candidate. The questions were based on issues that we thought you, our readers, would classify as the most important. Below are the questions we sent, as well as the candidate’s responses exactly as they were sent back to us.

1.  Where do you stand on the 3C Rail Project, and how are you prepared to deal with it should you be elected?

Chris Monzel: I do not support the 3C Rail Project.

Jim Tarbell: I am in support of the 3C rail project. Ohio’s $400 million investment will result in over 255 immediate construction jobs over a two-year period, and a US Department of Commerce study predicts approximately 8000 indirect and spin off jobs in Ohio. We need jobs.

According to the Amtrak report from September 2009, the 3C “Quick Start” passenger rail service will serve at least 478,000 in its first year of operation. Historically, throughout its national system, Amtrak has had steady ridership support from college students. An analysis by ODOT reveals that more than 220,000 students are within less than 10 miles from the proposed train station. Furthermore, the 3C passenger rail line runs near 40 colleges and universities.

According to a March 2009 Quinnipiac University statewide poll:

  • 73% of Ohioans ages 18-34 support passenger rail in Ohio and the 3C “Quick Start” Plan
  • 62% of Ohioans ages 35-54 support passenger rail in Ohio and the 3C “Quick Start” Plan
  • 61% of Ohioans 55 years or older support passenger rail in Ohio and the 3C “Quick Start” Plan

Furthermore, the 3C “Quick Start” Plan has received more than 200 statewide letters of support from various businesses, cities, universities and colleges, and other organizations who understand the benefits of passenger rail service in Ohio. The 3C “Quick Start” Passenger Rail Plan will connect Cleveland, Columbus, Springfield, Dayton, Riverside, Sharonville and Cincinnati.

2.  Where do you stand on The Banks project, and how are you prepared to deal with it should you be elected?

Chris Monzel: I have supported the Banks project as a current Cincinnati City Councilman and if elected as County Commissioner will continue to do so.

Jim Tarbell: I am very supportive of The Banks project. I am happy to report that Phase I is complete, ahead of schedule and under budget.

The Board of Commissioners of Hamilton County (County), the City of Cincinnati (City) and the Riverbanks Renaissance, LLC (developer) are partnering to develop the Banks Project. The Banks Project is a public improvement and mixed-use development located between the Paul Brown Stadium (to the west) and the Great American Ball Park (to the east). The Banks Project will be developed in phases over a period of approximately 15 years and will include 1,800 residential units, one million square feet of office space and more than 300,000 square feet of retail space. The Banks Project will be funded with public and private dollars. A recent article in The Enquirer reported that rental units being built are already being rented.

This will be a huge boost for the County. The added retail and entertainment venues mean additional tax dollars for the County. I believe recruiting businesses and residents to this area should be a joint venture of the City and County.

3.  Where do you stand on the Riverfront Park project, and how are you prepared to deal with it should you be elected?

Chris Monzel: I have supported the Riverfront Park project as a current Cincinnati City Councilman and if elected as County Commissioner will continue to do so.

Jim Tarbell: The Riverfront Park Project is another example of what can be done to create enduring landmarks. Not only will this be a tourist attraction, but residents within greater Cincinnati will be attracted to spend more time on our riverfront.

Phase I of Cincinnati Riverfront Park—currently under construction—will include the new Moerlein Lager House restaurant and brewery as well as a plaza of water jets with cascades of water that drop to pools along Mehring Way. There will be a grand stairway with landings at water-filled basins, a glass-floored walkway above a lower level loggia, a shade trellis, informational and interpretive displays, and public restrooms. Also part of the design is the Jacob G. Schmidlapp Stage & Event Lawn, a promenade, and within a tree grove, a monument to the Black Brigade, a floral garden and a labyrinth. The park will also feature a bike center and welcome center, and a section of the Ohio River Bike Trail.

I have a very good relationship with Willie Carden, Director of Parks, and David Prather, the project coordinator. I expect to be in close communication with them and am very supportive of their work.

4.  Given that both Louisville or Indianapolis are outperforming Cincinnati in economic indicators according to the newly released Agenda360/Vision 2015 Regional Indicators Report, do you support the idea of consolidated government similar to what is used in Louisville-Jefferson and Marion counties?

Chris Monzel: I do not support big metro-government. I do support shared-services between the county and other government jurisdictions.

Jim Tarbell: I spent an entire day three years ago with Mayor Abramson of Louisville and his cabinet specifically to study their system. I have also met numerous officers from Indianapolis over time for the same reason. I feel there is much to be gained from having an ongoing discussion with the stakeholders in Hamilton County with an eye towards taking advantage of their experience and progress. Every county, every jurisdiction, has its own challenges; but Indianapolis, for over forty years, and Louisville, for ten years, have made changes and improvements that could help here. Portland, Oregon has made similar changes. I remember one of their planners remarking that Cincinnati had considerably more resources than Portland, but that Portland simply had more of an attitude!

5.  What is your specific plan to close the stadium deficit? Does this plan completely close the projected deficit, and why/why not?

Chris Monzel: The Stadium fund is driving the county budget crisis. There are several avenues to look at to help address this. One is to work on any possibilities of renegotiating the lease.

The Bengals have put an offer on the table to renegotiate parts of the current lease. I will put the taxpayers first in these negotiations. The Bengals owner’s are part of the budget problem and must be part of the solution. I also understand the need to lower taxes in order to establish a welcoming environment for businesses. I believe in promoting home ownership, such as, a
Homearama in Hamilton County. Homearama has been held in Warren County seven (7) of the last eight (8) years.

Another option is to look at the county assets that could be sold which would generate $$ to get us out of our serious debt.

Jim Tarbell: Commissioner David Pepper and I have proposed a similar plan to reduce the debt by at least half by suspending the property tax rollback inappropriately promised over a decade ago.

The current property tax rollback, which reduced the amount of money homeowners pay in property taxes annually, would be rescinded on the value of homes over $150,000. In other words, no one would be affected unless their homes are valued over $150,000, and then only on the amount of the value OVER $150,000, putting the emphasis on higher priced real estate (whose owners have gotten the biggest break so far). The average homeowner would pay about $100 per year. This can be enacted immediately by a majority vote of the commissioners and give us a huge start towards balancing the budget. This would also put enormous pressure on the teams to play their part, with the commissioners and the public having taken the lead. There is nothing fair about this dilemma. None of us played a part in creating this crisis, but we must resolve it now and get on with moving this economy forward.

Development News Transportation

Breaking Down Cincinnati’s Eastern Corridor Passenger Rail Plan

The Eastern Corridor project, a multi-modal highway and commuter rail plan for eastern Hamilton County, is back in the news. Two weeks ago Cincinnati City Council voted against endorsing a TIGER II grant application seeking funds for the plan’s 17-mile commuter rail component.

The local media predictably turned this event into another city-county dispute, and insinuated that the TIGER II grant might alone fund construction of the entire Milford commuter rail line, which in 2003 was estimated to cost $420 million. There is no possibility of this happening, as Milford commuter rail would need to be awarded approximately two-thirds of the entire $600 million sum to be dispersed nationwide by the TIGER II program.

The media also ignored the Eastern Corridor plan’s central feature – four miles of the Milford commuter rail line is planned to be built parallel to a new $500 million U.S. 32 expressway between Red Bank Road and a point east of Newtown. The 1990’s cost estimate for Milford commuter rail included the savings associated with building a combined highway and rail project, including a new shared eight-lane bridge over the Little Miami River. The cost of building the commuter line first without provision for the future highway has not been studied.

The Oasis Line
Between downtown Cincinnati and the proposed eight-lane bridge over the Little Miami River, the Milford commuter rail is planned to operate on an eight-mile stretch of track paralleling the Ohio River known as the “Oasis Line.” In the late 1980’s the L&N Bridge (now the Purple People Bridge) was closed to freight rail traffic, and thus ended the operation of large trains along the Oasis Line. Since that time, traffic has been limited to a handful of freight cars per week, and the Cincinnati Dinner Train on weekends.

At first glance it would appear that implementation of commuter rail service on the Oasis Line should require nothing more than the purchase of commuter trains and the construction of a connection between the end of active tracks and the Riverfront Transit Center. Unfortunately, the poor condition of the existing track limits traffic to a maximum twelve miles per hour, meaning all eight miles between the Montgomery Inn Boathouse and Red Bank Road must be rebuilt. It is also probable that the Riverfront Transit Center connection must be built at least partially through Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point. All of this new track must be heavy freight railroad track, not the smaller and less expensive track used by light rail trains and modern streetcars.

Even after this needed investment in new track, grade crossings will remain at a half-dozen locations along Riverside Drive and in Columbia Tusculum, where perfunctory horn blasts will disturb those residing in new condos along Riverside Drive, longtime residents atop Mt. Adams and East Walnut Hills, and will surely be audible across the river in Bellevue and Dayton.

Poor Station Locations
Residents of Riverside Drive will be able to hear the Milford commuter rail trains, but most will not live within easy walking distance of the line’s stations. Of five stations proposed along the Oasis Line, only one, Delta Avenue in historic Columbia Tusculum, can be considered auspicious. By contrast, little existing ridership or future development exists around either the proposed Theodore Berry Park or the Cincinnati Waterworks (downhill from Torrence Parkway) stations. Ridership at the proposed Lunken Airport station will be minimal, and the Beechmont Avenue station will primarily serve as a bus transfer point.

On top of this minimal ridership, Riverside Drive is already served by Metro’s #28 bus. If Milford commuter rail is built, this bus will still have to operate due to the infrequent service and long distances between stations along the Oasis Line. It is also likely that Metro’s #28X, which serves Mariemont and Terrace Park en route to Milford, will have to continue operations as well.

An alternative proposal that called for streetcar or light rail service between downtown and Lunken Airport could eliminate the need for the #28 bus route, thus freeing up resources for bus service elsewhere. In this scenario significant savings would be achieved due to the considerably lower track costs for streetcars and light rail when compared to the freight railroad track currently proposed for the Milford commuter rail. Additionally, the vehicles are much quieter because they are electrically powered, labor costs are halved because they require just one driver, and more stops could be placed at much closer intervals.

High Operations Costs
No funding source has been identified to cover the outrageous annual operating costs for Milford commuter rail. In 2004 its annual operations were estimated to be $18.9 million — a sum similar to the estimated annual operating cost of the proposed 250-mile 3C Corridor passenger rail service between Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland.

The cause of these exorbitant operating costs is an alarming combination of mediocre ridership and high labor costs. A 2002 report projected approximately 6,000 weekday trips (3,000 commuters) along the Oasis Line at full build-out. For comparison, this ridership figure is roughly equivalent to Metro’s most popular bus routes. At the same time, the FTA requires a crew of two onboard all diesel commuter trains that operate on freight tracks, even for the small Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) planned for the Eastern Corridor, due to safety regulations.

By comparison, the Cincinnati Streetcar as presently planned will cost approximately $128 million to construct, require $3 million per year to operate, and will attract similar or higher daily ridership with 15 fewer route miles of track. Last month, city officials were notified that the Cincinnati Streetcar was awarded a $25 million Urban Circulator grant. If an identical amount were hypothetically awarded to the Eastern Corridor project through TIGER II, it would cover so little of the much more expensive Milford commuter rail that no construction would even be able to take place. Meanwhile, an additional $25 million put towards the Cincinnati Streetcar could extend the line into Avondale or Walnut Hills immediately. This means a potential grant for the Milford commuter rail might sit in the county treasury for a decade or more, or through tricky accounting be integrated into the Eastern Corridor project’s highway funding.

The Wasson Line
An alternative rail route to eastern Hamilton County involves use of the Wasson Line, which joins the Oasis Line near Red Bank Road but travels a very different path between that point and downtown Cincinnati. This route is eight miles – the exact same distance as the Oasis Line – but promises much higher ridership and much lower operational costs.

Since all freight operations ceased on the Wasson Line in 2009, electric light rail vehicles staffed by a single driver can be used at considerable cost savings over diesel commuter trains needed on the Oasis Line. Proposed station locations at Xavier University, Montgomery Road, Edwards Road, and Paxton Avenue each promise higher initial ridership — in 2002 the Wasson Line was estimated to attract 20,000 daily riders, or triple that of Milford commuter rail.

Also different from the Oasis Line, redevelopment potential exists around all of the stations locations along the Wasson Line, but especially the 25-acre parallelogram-shaped parcel recently assembled by Xavier University between its campus and Montgomery Road. The abandoned Wasson Road Railroad bisects this property and converges with the similarly abandoned CL&N railroad at the present edge of Xavier’s campus. The particular junction played a major role in the 2002 MetroMoves regional rail plan due to the convergence of several regional lines on their way into downtown along shared Gilbert Avenue tracks.

The Edward Road station is another location superior to anything on the Oasis Line. It is located within walking distance of Hyde Park Square and the majority of the neighborhood’s population. The station would be placed adjacent to, or across the street from, Rookwood Commons shopping center, and just a three-minute walk from the undeveloped Rookwood Exchange site north of Edmondson Road.

The Wasson Line has decisive cost-benefit advantages over the Oasis Line, but it obviously cannot function without a connection between Xavier University and downtown. After completion of the Cincinnati Streetcar, construction of a light rail connection between these points should be a top priority. This section alone promises the highest per-mile transit ridership in the metro area, and reaching Xavier University allows construction of three light rail branches, on existing railroad right-of-way, as funds permit.

Regional Priorities
It is unclear why construction of the Eastern Corridor project is any kind of priority. Much of the expense will be borne by Hamilton County, but with parts of the highway and rail line traveling over the undevelopable Little Miami River flood plain, the new expressway and perhaps even the rail line will act to encourage sprawl in Clermont County. Even the terminal station for the Milford commuter rail will not be in Milford’s town center, where it would be within walking distance of several hundred residents, but rather two miles away at Milford Parkway, home to Wal-Mart, Target, and chain sports bars.

Anti-rail forces are fond of saying that rail advocates will support anything that runs on rails. But advocates of better public transportation know that funds for rail projects are scarce and must be applied where the best cost-benefit exists. Moreover, the best transit mode must be chosen for each route. In the case of inner-city rail to Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs, diesel commuter rail along the Oasis Line is not the best solution, but rather, light rail service along the Wasson Line is.

Development News Politics Transportation

Additional $2.3B made available to high-speed rail projects, national safety committee envisioned

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is taking the next step in developing a national high-speed passenger rail system. The FRA has begun accepting applications for the next round of grants that will be used to develop high-speed intercity passenger rail corridors like Ohio’s 3C Corridor.

The High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Program includes $2.1 billion in grants available in this round of applications.  This round of funding compliments the $8 billion invested in high-speed rail last January that awarded $400 million to Ohio’s 3C “Quick Start” Plan. In addition to the $2.1 billion, another $245 million has also been made available for individual construction projects within a corridor. Applications will be accepted through Friday, August 6, 2010 and recipients will be announced by September 30, 2010.

“We are excited to move the President’s vision on high-speed rail forward and are working quickly to get money in the hands of states,” FRA Administrator Joseph C. Szabo stated in a prepared release sent to UrbanCincy. “These new funds will allow the states to further advance their high-speed rail plans and represent a commitment to developing a world-class transportation network.”

The news comes on the heels of the creation of a new Transit Rail Advisory Committee for Safety that is being tasked with drafting national safety measures for rail transit. The new committee will reportedly assist the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) with developing the national safety standards.

The U.S. DOT states that this is the first time any Administration has sent a bill to Congress that is specifically about transit. As safety oversight is currently regulated, the FTA is prohibited from implementing national safety standards or performing oversight of the State Safety Organizations. The hope is that with the passage of this bill the FTA will be able to better implement new transit safety requirements and regulations that enhance rail safety.

“While public transit is one of the safest ways to get around, we still experience preventable accidents, including fatal accidents, far too frequently,” FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said. “This advisory committee of industry experts will lay the foundation for the implementation of national safety standards once Congress passes President Obama’s safety legislation.”

The 20 individuals chosen to serve on TRACS were chosen from 79 applicants from around the country. The final committee includes two members from the Midwest (Chicago, Cleveland), and according to the U.S. DOT, individuals from state and local transit agencies, state safety oversight organizations, transit employee unions, industry associations, and other stakeholders.

News Transportation

Cincinnati hosts EACC high-speed rail conference

The 2010 Urban and Regional Public Transportation Conference, held May 5 at The Westin Hotel and sponsored by the European-American Chamber of Commerce, featured presentations by over a dozen industry experts including a keynote speech by John D. Porcari, Deputy Secretary of Transportation of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“America’s rail infrastructure is in shambles”, said Porcari, whose department is shifting policy away from a decades-old process that considered road or rail projects individually but could not easily approve multi-modal projects.

In working to rebuild “the squandered investments of our grandparents”, Porcari described a profound turnaround in federal transportation policy from one that encouraged sprawl to one that will promote walkable smart growth. He promised that America’s new generation of passenger trains will not be assembled here from components manufactured overseas, but rather be “100% American” in order to “capture every piece of the high speed rail value chain”.

Although the announced policy changes portend an increased opportunity for federal assistance for local rail transit projects, Porcari stressed that in the short term those places with their “act together” will be first to benefit from these changes.

Speaking on the matter of the $400 3C’s grant, Matt Dietrich, Executive Director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission, remarked that early in the planning of the 3C’s line, Amtrak offered to sell Ohio a variety of retired and surplus locomotives and passenger cars for $10-$15 million. But after grants were awarded to projects in other regions, that equipment has been directed elsewhere, and Ohio has now budgeted $175 million – almost half of the 3C’s grant – for new passenger trains.

The constricted budget means grant funds are presently unavailable for construction of a track connection to Cincinnati Union Terminal. A permanent suburban station is planned for Sharonville and a temporary terminal station is planned for Cincinnati in Bond Hill.

Cleveland’s station will be located on that city’s lakefront, with a convenient connection to its Waterfront light rail line. Both Dayton and Columbus will have stations located in their respective downtowns.

Dietrich also discussed plans for a station at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, possibly within walking distance of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The base is the state’s largest single-site employer and the museum is, aside from King’s Island and Cedar Point, the state’s most popular tourist attraction.

The conference also featured speakers from France, Spain, Germany, and England, each of whom discussed not only the technical aspects of their high speed trains, but also how their networks are funded and administered.

Tom Stables, Senior Vice President of Commercial Development for First Group, discussed how England awards franchises to approximately a dozen different companies who for periods of seven to ten years operate the county’s various commuter and intercity train lines.

Juergen Wilder, representing industry giant Siemens, described how a ticketing and revenue sharing agreement was achieved with Lufthansa after a high speed rail line extended to Frankfurt’s airport drew significant patronage away from the airline. In the face of competition from passenger rail, Wilder suggested that American carriers might seek similar arrangements or even bid to operate the country’s envisioned high speed rail lines.

Herve Le Caignec, representing SNCF, the company that operates the French TGV network, discussed attempts at private-public partnerships in the construction of new TGV lines. He also offered evidence of the TGV’s staggering success – every day trains seating 750 to 1,100 passengers leave the French capital bound for Lyon and Marseilles every five minutes and do not just sell out individually, but all trains – more than 300 of them — often sell out each weekend as Parisians escape their drizzle and migrate en masse to the Mediterranean coast.

News Transportation

Cincinnati to host conference on high-speed rail

The European-American Chamber of Commerce (EACC) will host the Urban & Regional Public Transportation Conference on Wednesday, May 5 at the Westin Hotel in downtown Cincinnati. The EACC 2010 Conference & Gala will gather a group of international, national and regional transportation experts to discuss Ohio’s 3C rail corridor and high-speed rail in general.

“High-speed rail has brought economic, social and environmental benefits to many countries around the world,” said EACC Executive Director, Anne Cappel. “The United States and the Midwest region can learn from case studies and experiences from our European counterparts and, hopefully, provide time and economic savings as we move forward.”

Event organizers say that the conference is designed to address issues surrounding the 3C rail corridor with a pragmatic approach. Conference attendees will hear from experts involved in Ohio’s high-speed rail plan in regard to its cost-effectiveness, safety and environmental impacts from local, regional and national levels.

Ohio’s 3C rail corridor was recently awarded $400 million from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, and will eventually carry nearly 500,000 passengers annually between Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland. The 3C rail corridor itself serves an estimated 6 million people and is considered to be the most under-served passenger rail corridor in America, and would eventually be connected into the larger Midwest High-Speed Rail Network.

The EACC 2010 Conference & Gala will include three panels made up of representatives from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Ohio Department of Transportation, Midwest High-Speed Rail Association, American Public Transportation Association, FirstGroup America, General Electric, the City of Cincinnati and representatives from England, France and Spain. The three panels will focus on Economic Development, Performance/Environmental Impact, Financial/Operational Models.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation, John D. Porcari, will deliver the conference’s key note address to the hundreds of decision-makers and thought leaders expected to be in attendance.

The EACC 2010 Conference & Gala will take place at the Westin Hotel (map) in downtown Cincinnati from 10am to 9:30pm and include lunch, a cocktail/networking session following the conference, and the gala dinner. A variety of registration packages are available until Friday, April 30 at 5pm.

If you are unable to make the event, be sure to follow UrbanCincy on Twitter where we will be live tweeting from the conference using the #eaccConference hashtag.

High-Speed Rail image from Environmental Law & Policy Center.