Development News Opinion Politics Transportation

Looking to LA: Could a Rail Transit Tax Transform Cincinnati?

America’s anti-tax zealots assert that local taxes are prime motivators in the relocation of people and businesses from one part of the country to another. By their reasoning, the Cincinnati region should be flooded with newcomers, as Cincinnatians enjoy lower rates of taxation than the citizens of nearly any major American metropolitan area.

Case in point is Los Angeles, where LA County voters have approved three separate .5% sales taxes since 1980 to support public transportation and road improvements above and beyond what is budgeted by Caltrans, California’s DOT. This 1.5% combined sales tax funds an enormous bus system and construction of a rail transit network that will soon surpass 100 route miles. Meanwhile in low-tax Cincinnati, we operate a threadbare bus system which in its entirety carries just one-third the daily ridership of Los Angeles’ Red Line subway.

The 23rd Street Station is part of the Expo Line Phase 1 segment which opened earlier this year. Construction work progresses on the Phase 2 segment, and will be completed by 2015. Photograph by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

The revival of rail transit in Los Angeles is an important lesson to Cincinnati: if new rail transit lines can be successful in the city where the world’s largest streetcar system was scrapped and replaced by the world’s largest expressway system, it can certainly be successful here. Moreover, if a city can attract millions of newcomers while taxing them at a higher rate than the places where they originated, the anti-tax argument prevalent in the Cincinnati area is revealed to be a fraud.

Propositions A, C, and Measure R
Public transportation in Los Angeles County is funded by three .5% sales taxes approved in 1980, 1990, and 2008.

Although these three taxes total 1.5%, only .85% can fund rail transit construction projects. Of that sum, .1% is restricted to commuter rail, and only .25% can fund subway tunnel construction. This bizarre stipulation came into effect when the electorate approved the Act of 1998, which prohibited the use of Proposition A funds for subway construction. This act is still effect, but after passage of Measure R in 2008, construction of subway tunnels could resume.

Of the three taxes, Measure R is the most important as it pertains to Cincinnati’s current situation. The additional funds made available by Measure R allowed Los Angeles to accelerate its construction schedule – since 2008 two new light rail lines have opened, the south branch of the Gold Line and the all-new Expo Line. An extension of the Expo Line to Santa Monica is currently under construction, the all-new Crenshaw line broke ground in June 2012, and the long-awaited extension of the Wilshire Boulevard. subway might begin in 2013.

An Expo Line train waits at a recently opened station. Photograph by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

Future Transit and Quality-of-Life Ballot Issues for Cincinnati
Most metropolitan areas around the country are now introducing taxes larger than the half-cent sales tax MetroMoves proposal voted on in Hamilton County in 2002. Such a tax would have generated an estimated $60 million annually split equally between improved bus service and rail construction and operation.

Should Cincinnati use Los Angeles as a model, the $120 million generated by a one-cent tax could fund much more, much faster than the 2002 MetroMoves plan which would have required 30 years to build out the system envisioned.

What’s more, with excess revenue, the FTA federal match process could be bypassed and Cincinnati could break ground quickly on the sort of construction appropriate for our city. Specifically, subway tunnels that might not win federal matching funds could become a reality in just a few years instead of enduring the decades-long struggles seen recently in New York City, Seattle, and elsewhere.

Up To Speed

Will Cincinnati be left behind in the latest passenger rail station boom?

Will Cincinnati be left behind in the latest passenger rail station boom?.

Inter-city rail is also booming as Amtrak experiences record ridership numbers, and is beginning to implement the first phases of the nation’s planned high-speed rail network. Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, however, sits waiting investment to allow additional passenger rail service. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the nation, cities are investing to support this growth with new and improved central train stations. More from Denver Urbanism:

Los Angeles Union Station opened in 1939 and is often referred to as “last of the great railway stations in America.” And for the past 3/4 of a century that superlative has been largely correct. As rail travel declined, so did rail station design. During the latter half of the 20th Century, many cities replaced their grand historic depots with so-called “amshaks”, cheap and awful buildings that have more in common with utility sheds than anything else. But now that’s all changing, and soon Los Angeles will have to give up its title.


The differences are striking

On Saturday I pointed out some differences between where Seattle and Cincinnati are in terms of building their cities to be attractive to the next generation workforce. The differences are just so striking today.

In the Cincinnati Enquirer, the editorial staff ran a piece outlining why they think the Cincinnati Streetcar is too bold of a plan. One that isn’t necessarily a bad plan, but one too big for Cincinnatians to undertake during an economy such as this.

At the same time, the Seattle Times has been celebrating the opening of Seattle’s new light rail system. You’ll notice many people wearing bright green uniforms/shirts that nearly 70,000 people wore to Qwest Field on their way to the Seattle Sounders FC vs. Chelsea FC soccer match.


Cincinnati continues to lose ground on its competition

In 2002 Hamilton County voters decided to vote down a half-cent sales tax measure that would have fundamentally changed the way in which Cincinnatians move about the region with a regional transit plan that included light rail (system map), streetcars (integrated map with regional rail plan) and a completely revamped bus system.

As Cincinnatians continue to be restricted to automobile travel and limited bus service, Seattle is now celebrating the opening of their light rail system. Having fewer transportation choices is a negative and it is no wonder that the talented young professionals and creative class are choosing cities like Seattle, Portland, Charlotte, Atlanta, D.C. and San Francisco over places like Cincinnati.

These individuals are choosing life styles and social experiences over household size, affordability and even job opportunities. The jobs are following the talent, and it’s only a matter of time before Cincinnati starts feeling the heat from its companies that are having trouble attracting the young talent they need to stay competitive. In this global marketplace Cincinnati can no longer afford to rely on its history and foundational strength – Cincinnati needs to be competitive and learn how to start creating a city and lifestyle that appeals to our nation’s changing demographics and urbanizing population.

The scenes from Seattle with more coverage here:

Development News Politics

Building a great city

A recent comment by John Schneider got me thinking about this concept. Schneider said the following comment in reference to a recent trip he made to Portland, OR.

“The quality of the new buildings, starting at the airport and evident throughout the city, the mass of people walking the sidewalks, on the streetcars, and at events, was amazing. They are building a great city there.”

Cincinnati for the longest time was building a great city. Our park system, boulevard network and grand collection of diverse architectural styles has always been impressive. Cincinnati is considered to be the birthplace of contemporary American urban planning when it became the first major American city to endorse a comprehensive plan in 1925 that complimented the Park Plan of 1907 that we still follow today.

Our urban environment was methodically planned out and carried out with the highest quality until about the mid-twentieth century when we started engaging in the urban renewal and suburban sprawl policies sweeping the nation.

New Columbia Square development in the heart of the historic Columbia Tusculum NBD

Cincinnati is not certainly alone in this regard, but what can be done to counter this trend. I think most of us can agree that the quality of buildings, the urban form, social and cultural institutions pale in comparison to what we used to build here in Cincinnati.

Cities like Portland, Seattle and even Charlotte to a lesser extent seem to be getting it right with their recent actions. Their history does not come close to Cincinnati’s and they will never be able to boast many of the amenities we have today, but we have lost much and they are building great cities today, while we seem to be content with building sub-par city based around anything but the people who live here.

New development in (clockwise from top-left):
Seattle, Washington; Portland’s Pearl District; Charlotte’s South End
Seattle & Portland photos by Jake Mecklenborg