Cincinnati appears locked in a tense battle over competing visions for future transit expansion–urban streetcar on one hand, regional commuter rail on the other. The issue appears to be which project should earn federal funding, and part of the issue appears to be process–elected officials and/or staffs from the city and county don’t seem to have communicated clearly enough to avoid the crisis of confusion that seems to have occurred there.
But beyond that, the debate raises important questions about what a community’s transportation priorities should be. In my community, we frequently find ourselves wrestling with how best to plan not just for the city of Austin but for the Central Texas region–given how many people need to travel from outside the city limits to inside of it and beyond it on a daily basis. Clearly, a commuter rail line speaks more to those needs than an urban streetcar does. But a streetcar has a certain added “cachet” with riders–both tourists and residents–who like the quieter, lighter feeling of streetcars with more places to board. A commuter rail seems more well-suited to take cars off the roads by enabling people to get to work without one, but it’s often hard to function without urban light rail by riding the commuter rail into town but then needing to go somewhere else for an appointment, event, meeting, etc. Some might argue a streetcar, with its more compact urban routes, might also encourage a certain kind of land use/growth pattern that is more compact and environmentally sustainable, limiting the overall carbon and cement footprint of growth, while commuter rail may at least prolong the existence of more spread out development, if not encourage it.
In the end, the question in the Cincinnati area could be much more practical–the streetcar project appears more “shovel ready” than the commuter rail project, and sometimes it takes getting a project done, even if it does not meet everyone’s needs, to stimulate future construction. At the very least, this incident points to the need for robust dialogue and consensus-building among various entities within a given region. From a transit fan’s perspective, this is also the kind of problem I’d like to have–two competing proposals to enhance the transportation landscape in Cincinnati, without building more roads. #snappatx