Friday, December 20, 2013

Cincinnati suppliers: Thank the advocates

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Christmas came early to Cincinnati streetcar advocates this year of 2013, on Dec. 19, to be precise.

Cinn.streetcar CAFusaAnd various rail suppliers and contractors also are breathing a “cautious” sigh of relief following the city’s tortured decision to press on with its streetcar project. Those suppliers can – and should – thank the rail advocates who kept the project alive.

In fact, in the months ahead, industry suppliers, at least in the passenger rail sector and certainly when it comes to streetcars and light rail transit, might heed the Cincinnati turmoil as an object lesson of just whom to trust.

Cincy advocates themselves graciously mention local political supporters – some departing from office voluntarily, others suffering election defeats in part due to their pro-rail stance. They also credit the clear-cut, unambiguous position the Federal Transit Administration hammered out early, and repeated as necessary, concerning the proposal to “trade in” $40.9 million in federal funds for “other” projects (such as – what else? – more roads). FTA said it wasn’t happening; kudos to Peter Rogoff and crew.

But the advocates themselves were the ones who refused to lay down and die after all these years of dragging Cincinnati toward the 21st century, defying local NIMBYs, defying suburban counties who cared less about any downtown revival, defying a state governor who made clear his detestation of anything rail (and those evil, evil subsidies that, somehow, only passenger rail is blamed for using). And the advocates even helped soothe over tensions with the likes of Duke Energy, which for more than a year had protested expectations of paying for any of the utility adjustments required for streetcar construction, before reaching a resolution with the city.

It’s not necessarily the job of those such as CAF USA, manufacturing the five streetcars for the Queen City, to count coup on such matters. It wasn’t a legal must, probably, for Messer/Prus/Delta Joint Venture to know the political terrain as it landed the construction contract last July. After all, rail advocates usually aren’t the ones handing out the contract.

Still, those suppliers might want to redial their opinion of those rail advocates (and how to use their power in the future), considering the advocates were the ones who generated the political pressure to save the project – and the business associated with it.

I’m hopeful CAF USA and Messer/Prus/Delta Joint Venture, among others, may already know that, and certainly not everyone and every rail-related company is guilty of overlooking the advocates and their value. A Dec. 20 story in the Elmira Heights Gazette (N.Y.) notes:

Mark Smith, the general manager of CAF USA’s Elmira Heights facility — where the streetcars for the project will be made — reserved comment on the vote until the company receives formal notification from Cincinnati. “Everyone is watching this, and we are going to take the cautious route for now,” Smith said Thursday.

A side note: Communities leaders beyond Cincinnati might also be thankful for the work of advocates. Again, from the Elmira Heights Gazette:

George Miner, president of Southern Tier Economic Growth, said the decision to resume the project was great news for the 600 workers at CAF USA. “The company would have been reimbursed for the substantial soft costs of getting the project awarded, but we need the work,” he said. “Our economy needs the payroll.” 

We have here an economic version of modus ponens: If A equals B and if B equals C, then A equals C. For Cincinnati, if advocates (A) sway officials (B) and officials (B) seek contracts with suppliers (C), then A is aiding contract efforts to C. Put more simply: Rail advocates can be good for business. For your business.

As I’ve noted before, from acronym meeting to acronym meeting, I find plenty of dedicated supplier representatives who themselves are rail advocates. They believe in what they’re doing not just for the paycheck, but also because they think passenger rail is a good thing. Some of them are confident or comfortable enough to even admit it, or even declare so with pride. 

But some keep their belief under wraps and, as a rail advocate myself for some decades, I understand why. I’ve heard the slurs and derogatory comments up close and personal from all kinds of sources. From NIMBYs. From local officials. From transit agency representatives, though seldom in New Jersey, at least face-to-face. From the Garden State’s Department of Transportation, where I indeed did hear such opprobrium delivered, sometimes sotto voce, sometimes spat at me with venom and without reservation.

Trolley jolley. Foamer.  “FRN,” to be charitably translated as “freaking rail nut,” though more often offered in variants (plural) a bit more coarse. I’ve heard them all. I guess I’ve been them all, in the eyes of this officious person or that. The dismissive vitriol is enough to turn the hair grey on any rail advocate. Works on me.

But it’s not the Cincinnati rail advocates who are being “unprofessional” in the fight for streetcars in the Queen City. Newly elected Mayor John Cranley, who tried to dismantle the effort, yielded to political reality Dec. 19 with surface grace, but insisted he would refuse to sign the ordinance to resume streetcar construction, thus gaining a soupcon of obstructionism lasting four days, in effect past the Dec. 19 midnight deadline set by the FTA for a decision. FTA’s Rogoff adjusted, saying FTA could live with the delay – but how professional was the move to delay, suppliers? CAF USA, for one, has four extra days to ponder that.

Contrast that fussy-pants move with comments from Cincinnati resident and streetcar advocate John Schneider, who fired off a thank-you list Friday that read, in part: 

Were it not for Ryan Messer, who parachuted in to lead this effort forty or so days ago, we would not have succeeded. He brought new energy to our movement. He's the kind of leader who emerges every ten years or so here. Early-on, he recruited our attorney, Paul DeMarco, who used his contacts at the highest level of our nation's government to bring about the result we saw today, to assure the Feds we knew where we were going. Early on, without a hint of hesitation, Karen Blatt volunteered our spiffy campaign office, and Ryan hired Scott Allison to execute the flawless campaign to gather signatures. Others — Jean-Francois Flechet, Sean Lee, Rob Richardson, Jr, Margy Waller and Brad and Karen Hughes — did whatever had to be done and were the wisest advisors and best team-players anyone could have. If I'm leaving someone out, and I probably am, I really apologize.

Eric Avner of the Haile Foundation raised $9,000,000 in a little over 48 hours, enough to make City Council comfortable that the cost of operating the streetcar was assured for the first 10 years. This was the keystone of the plan to save the streetcar. 

John Schneider modestly omits himself, so I’ll thank him profusely for his ongoing efforts, of which he graciously has kept me  (and, I hope, Railway Age readers) informed.

In turn, it’s my duty to urge our readers, including our supplier community, to keep close tabs on just whom your business allies really are – not just in Cincinnati, but in all the U.S. and Canadian municipalities climbing onboard the streetcar and LRT wave. Suppliers: Forget the trash-talk acronyms and pejoratives. Thank the advocates.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.