Friday, October 25, 1996
Catch this train before it pulls out

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Someday, Cincinnati just might have to take out an ad:

FREE TO A GOOD HOME: One subway. About 70 years old. Never used. No extras. But the tunnel is there. Call Mayor Roxanne Qualls or City Manager John Shirey, City Hall.

What else can Cincinnati do? Nobody wants a subway no one ever rode. They can't even give it away.

Not that they haven't tried.

Ask the city of Norwood.

In 1981, Cincinnati gave Norwood 3.72 acres of subway land. It was inside Norwood's city limits along with 1,695 feet of tunnel Cincinnati dug back in the 1920s. All Norwood had to do was pay for the upkeep.

Slick.

Norwood's mayor said: Sold! Then, thinking better of the idea, his city council said: No deal!

And that's why both cities ended up this week in the courtroom of Judge Arthur Ney Jr. They were passing the old tunnel back and forth as if it were a nutty aunt who needs a home. But neither municipal cousin wants her.

Poor old auntie. She smells. She leaks. She might cost somebody a lot of money someday. And she's cracked.

Penny-wise, subway-foolish

Who can blame Norwood?

The city, like so many one-time factory towns, often has trouble finding two spare dimes to rub together. Remember a couple of years ago when most of the city's police cars were off the road because there was no money for repairs? Norwood would rather not sink precious tax dollars into fixing an old, leaky hole in the ground.

So Norwood told Cincinnati: You built it. You keep it. Even if part of it runs under, along and next to Norwood's streets.

Cincinnati did build it.

In 1916, a $6 million bond issue appeared on the ballot to build a subway system. It was intended to connect the suburbs with downtown and give Cincinnati a major-league future. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

The subway issue passed by a 6-to-1 ratio.

Eighty years later, in another landslide, voters OK'd plans to build two stadiums. This is designed to bring people downtown from the suburbs.

You'd think a subway might come in handy.

Work started on the unused underground rapid-transit system - known in today's lingo as ''light rail'' - in 1920. Two miles of tunnels were dug. Rights of way were purchased. Track layouts were in place on seven miles of above-ground routes. Concrete was poured. Underground stations were built. But no one ever dropped a token in a fare box.

By 1928, the subway project was dead. Of the $6 million, only $8,527 remained in the till.

The project was buried under inflation, incompetence and innuendoes that shyster politicians took the money and ran.

The bonds were finally paid off in 1966. Total cost: $13,019,982.45. Such a deal. Washington, D.C., opened its Metro system in 1976 at a cost of $4.6 billion.

But D.C. got a subway that works. All Cincinnati got was a little train that didn't.

All aboard

Norwood and Cincinnati are arguing over the wrong thing.

There are new, serious discussions going on about establishing a light-rail system. The idea this time is to connect Cincinnati's booming suburbs with its downtown core. Instead of development keeping people apart, this subway would bring us together and give a world-class transportation system to a city that boasts of having a world of class.

With so many people looking to the future, Norwood and Cincinnati have better things to do than run up their legal bills arguing about the past.

They should be working to salvage this monument to civic shortsightedness.

Rather than argue about who should maintain something that doesn't work - a formula Cincinnati, in particular, has applied to far too many urban development issues - let's talk about filling the tunnels with subway cars and commuters from the burbs.

Only by finishing this job from the past can Greater Cincinnati be brought up to date. This train is long overdue.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.