Washington, D.C.-based railway manufacturer CAF USA created renderings of the Cincinnati streetcar.
CAF USA Washington, D.C.-based railway manufacturer CAF USA created renderings of the Cincinnati streetcar.

This country has a hard time investing in infrastructure—unless it is for cars, and even then the expenditures are increasingly under scrutiny. A case in point is my own hometown, Cincinnati. A recent election brought new mayor John Cranley into power under two promises: to stop a downtown streetcar line already under construction, and to rescind a deal to privatize parking. Unlike many other politicians, he fulfilled those two promises in his first week in office.

The parking privatization deal, which gave the city's parking meters over to the local Port Authority—which subcontracted the work to a division of Xerox—was not a particularly good one, as I pointed out earlier. But it could have been made better, I believe, with some negotiations. I am happy to see the parking remain in public hands, but it means that Mayor Cranley will have to find funds elsewhere to help pay for the new highway interchange near Cincinnati’s central medical cluster that he insists he wants to still build. He proposes doing this by scarfing up the funds otherwise targeted for investments in city-owned property, and that just seems quite wrong to me. Like most cities, Cincinnati needs to invest in and improve the historic legacy that supports its current vitality and future success.

The streetcar lines were already being laid, and an analysis commissioned by the city council showed that by adding up sunk costs and the federal funds that the city would have to return, stopping the project would cost almost as much as moving forward. Cranley countered, noting that running what is ultimately a very short streetcar line will cost the city $4 to $5 million a year. So private donors, in an effort spearheaded by the local Haile Foundation, guaranteed $900,000 a year for 10 years to offset the losses, and the city council voted in favor of the line.

I am truly ambivalent about the streetcar. It is slated to go only from downtown to the newly gentrifying Over-the-Rhine neighborhood a few miles to the north. I see no pressing need for it and it has become insanely expensive (costing more than $130 million). Originally, it was meant to connect with the University of Cincinnati and that same medical complex, which would have made more sense, but that phase is now financially out of reach.

A Cincinnati streetcar circa 1940s. The rail line was abandoned in 1951.
Metro Bus/Wikimedia Commons A Cincinnati streetcar circa 1940s. The rail line was abandoned in 1951.

For the money, our public transit systems are laughable and horrible—in Cincinnati and in most American cities. What the city needs is a flexible, small-scale transit web using many small buses on high-speed lanes as well as vans to meet the need of a sprawling urban landscape. If we need fixed rail for anything, it's for connections between far-flung nodes and suburbs, from the airport in the south to rapidly growing areas to the far north.

That sort of investment will never happen, not in Cincinnati and not in almost any other city in the U.S. Putting the investment into fixed infrastructure is the only way to at least create one small fact on or in the ground, which is why I still support the streetcar. This country, however, better come up with a way to fix and improve exactly those things that bind us together, or we will only continue to create more physical, economic, and political distance between ourselves. If architects and designers want to contribute, I suggest they propose models that are as well designed and convincingly portrayed as the work they do for developers. Then perhaps we will have something that will argue for an architecture of community.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

Note: The original copy has been updated to indicate that the Haile Foundation pledged to fund $900,000 a year for 10 years. We regret the error.