Monday, February 02, 2009

The Cincinnati Subway: The Top Reasons why it never happened.

Since more blog posts and websites are popping up around the web concerning Cincinnati's famous hole in the ground, I thought I'd take a few minutes and share a comprehensive (it's not that long! Seriously!) list of reasons why the subway project never came to fruition. This information can be found in my book, The Cincinnati Subway, but if you're too impatient to wait for a copy, then here we go.

Cincinnati was quite a different place in the late 1800s. Downtown was much more isolated, confined to the "Basin," the depressed area surrounded by the hills. Suburbs were developing on top of those hills. Outward towns like Blanchester were accessible by horse-drawn wagons.

The interurban railroad system linked Cincinnati to all the other major cities in the Midwest. This was the way to travel circa 1900.

Cincinnati's streetcar tracks were incomptible with at least half the interurbans' tracks. Some interurbans could drive right into downtown Cincinnati and drop off passengers where they wanted to go. Others had to drop off passengers on the outskirts, and they had to take a streetcar to their destination, which could add another hour onto their trip. Loaded down with suitcases and impatient children, this could prove quite a headache.

Meanwhile, the Miami-Erie Canal wound across the middle of downtown. By 1900, the canal was no longer used and was more or less becoming a fetid swamp.


It was twofold: eliminate the canal, and allow all interurbans to access the heart of downtown.

That's the reason.

Now, there were secondary reasons for the need for a rapid transit system: alleviate streetcar overcrowding, allow downtown workers an easier and faster way to get from downtown to their homes in area suburbs like Saint Bernard or Oakley.

So, in a nutshell, by 1913 they started making plans for the rapid transit system. World War I happened and pushed the schedule back a few years.

Construction started in 1920. By 1927, the money had run out.

But that's not the reason why the subway failed. If they, meaning Mayor Seasongood, felt it was a necessary project, he would have found the money. Perhaps after 1930 it could have been a good WPA project. But it wasn't. Why not?


The interurbans were going out of business.

Yup. It wasn't money, although that had a lot to do with it. Henry Ford is to blame. See, when the subway was planned, the automobile was The New Thing. People travelled everywhere by railroads and interurbans, and by streetcars in the city. But, around 1915 or so, the Model T started selling like the proverbial hotcake. Now, almost anyone could afford a cheap car. People stopped taking the interurbans. Interurbans started going out of business. Ergo, the subway was not needed.

There were other issues as well.

As automobile usage increased, streetcar ridership declined. There was less of a need to move passengers from streecars to a subway.

Because of the automobile, the shape of the city started to change. New roads were built. Existing roads were widened. Old buildings were torn down for parking garages. Why spend money on a subway when other construction took priority?

While the canal was indeed used for underground subway tubes, the initial need for the subway was now gone. The canal was gone. In its place was Central Parkway, a "grand boulevard" which would include fountains, benches, and trees. Now, even Central Parkway was eliminating the need for a subway.

The money did run out. Here's why. The rapid transit project was planned before WWI. They felt that $6 million was enough to do the whole loop. And around 1912/1913 it would have been. However, after the war, construction prices had literally doubled in cost. There was no way for them to have predicted that. So, they built what they could with the money they had, which was only some construction on the western half. Also, there was some overzealous spending during the time, that could have been linked to graft and politicians scratching each others' backs, but that has yet to be actually proven. I believe that paperwork was shredded.

Last but not least was Cincinati's savior, the great Mayor Seasongood. Yes, he overturned bossism. Yes he reorganized City Hall into a nine-person committee. But he was dealing with the boss-appointed Board of Rapid Transit Commissioners. The Mayor did not like the Board, and the Board did not like the Mayor. His continuous clashes with them over every little thing further solidified his stance that a rapid transit system was not to be continued after their terms of office had expired in 1930.

As a result, Seasongood did not look ahead to Cincinnati's future needs and determine that while Cincinnati didn't necessarily need a complete rapid transit system in 1929, it certainly might twenty to thirty years later.

And now today, Cincinnati could definitely benefit from a modern light rail system. The problem is that if they started building one now, it wouldn't be ready for twenty years. By then we'll all have flying cars and won't need subways.

Which is why voters won't vote for the issue when it goes on the ballot. They're already paying sales tax increases for the new Paul Brown Stadium for those fab fab fabulous Bengals, as well as other things like the new baseball stadium and Fort Washinton Way. Light Rail would result in another sales tax increase, and most residents won't be able to use the light rail system when it's complete. They'll be dead.

So, there it is. That's why Cincinnati doesn't have a rapid transit system today. Never again don't let anyone tell you it was just a money issue.



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