THE BLOG

Five Lessons From Cincinnati's Little Engine That Could

01/06/2014 09:05 am ET | Updated Mar 08, 2014

Cincinnati, Ohio - a City steeped in history, pivotal in national politics, and home to Fortune 500 businesses - is officially emerging from its Controversy-Of-The-Decade.

The dust has settled on a 7-year brouhaha centering around a $133 million streetcar system, proposed to drive economic development in the City's core and to lay the groundwork for expanded rail transportation.

More than any project in decades, the streetcar kerfuffle has fueled unending drama and controversy: a symbol of progress for proponents and of profligate spending for detractors. In the process, national media - ranging from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times - have taken notice.

The saga began when the mayor and city council set the 3.6-mile project in motion, only to have a right-wing anti-tax group gather signatures for a ballot measure to stop the streetcar from being built. Voters rejected the measure; the streetcar survived.

Next, then-newly elected Governor John Kasich yanked $52 million of previously committed state funding from the project, and significantly altered the streetcar's route and viability.

The following year found the same anti-tax group putting yet another measure on the ballot to halt the streetcar - only to have citizens again vote, albeit by a narrow margin, for the project to go forward.

The impasse continued...and continued...and continued.

Then, this past November, a new mayor was elected in a campaign centered around cancelling the streetcar.

The only problem with that promise was that by this point the project was well underway, with construction contracts signed; grant agreements with the federal government long-since agreed to; streets dug up; rails placed in the ground; and workers on the job.

The final fate of the project came to a head just before Christmas, facing a do-or-die funding deadline from the federal government. In soap opera-like fashion, only hours before the deadline, the project survived with just enough votes to overcome a mayoral veto.

Three Council members - myself included - who had long-standing skepticism about the project agreed to support completion to avoid wasting tens of millions of dollars with nothing to show; damaging our City's national image; compromising our standing with the federal government; and enduring the loss of jobs and development for a project already underway.

Now, seven years after the project's inception, completion seems assured.

As we begin a new year, the factors that caused Cincinnati's streetcar so much trouble, as well as the factors that ultimately allowed it to prevail, hold lessons - for every level of government - not only about how to get things done, but, more significantly, how to get them done right.

1) Communicate Well Early; Fight Less Later: The streetcar's primary challenge from the get-go was that it appeared to benefit only two neighborhoods, not the entire city - leaving Cincinnati's other 50 neighborhoods unimpressed and unenthusiastic. City leadership failed to show the broader population how a downtown streetcar would benefit them. A communications vacuum was quickly and effectively filled by opposition voices, who declared the streetcar a boondoggle that would jeopardize basic services on the back of under-served neighborhoods.

2) Narrow, Niche Messaging Loses; Broadly-Resonant Messaging Wins: The early messaging that was disseminated when pitching the streetcar project was that it would drive economic development along the route. This again gave most citizens the sense that a concentrated area of town would be revitalized, while the rest of the city was neglected. The winning messaging that ultimately helped save the streetcar was that with construction well underway, cancellation would mean wasting $80 million with no resulting benefit. Fiscal common sense - a broadly graspable message, used often as the reason to stop the streetcar - became the reasonable rationale for continuing.

3) Anger Is A Potent Force; Channel It Productively: In his winning campaign this fall, the new mayor masterfully tapped voters' anger toward a city council that they felt was spending excessively on projects like the streetcar. That anger proved compelling at the polls, especially in a low voter turnout year. But just weeks into the new mayor's tenure, when he took immediate steps to scrap the streetcar, long-time enthusiasts of the projects were re-awakened with a new-found energy of their own. A grassroots army mobilized to pressure the mayor and council. The realization that "It really could get canceled" engaged thousands as never before.

4) Be Careful With Your Reputation, You Only Get One: Another vital turn in the streetcar's survival was the prospect of damaging the city's relationship with the federal government, which had committed $45 million to the project. Regardless of how people felt about the streetcar, there was a broad recognition that Cincinnati needs Washington's partnership and assistance for other vital projects ranging from bridges to parks to bus service. People legitimately continue to debate whether the streetcar is the right priority at the right moment - but compromising the credibility and reliability of the city is understood to mean more long-lasting damage.

5) Government and the Private Sector Work Best Together: The deal that ultimately got the streetcar the votes it needed to move forward involved a collaboration of Cincinnati's philanthropic community and private sector offering nearly $10 million to mitigate the streetcar's annual operating cost to the City. After private sector leaders sat on the sidelines of the streetcar debate for years, their willingness to put real skin in the game shifted the conversation. Government and the private sector leveraged their respective resources and together yielded an outcome that was only possible with both at the table.

Whether it's a city, a state, or the federal government, there should indeed be robust debate about what priorities we choose to advance. But how we advance those priorities can be just as important - and doing so in an open, inclusive, collaborative way will always yield greater promise for success.

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