Cincinnati ahead of the curve. It’s not a phrase we hear much. Our city has rightfully earned its conservative reputation, having mostly missed out on this decade’s skyrocketing real estate prices and the 1990s’ high-tech startup boom, but also dodging the worst of the busts that inevitably followed.

Careful spending in long-term investments has fostered growth, whether it’s Procter & Gamble continuously reinvigorating its billion-dollar brands, Children’s Hospital building on its sterling national reputation through expansion, or the public-private partnership that revitalized Fountain Square and lured new businesses around it.

Along Cincinnati’s slow and steady course, opportunities arise that test our comfort levels for change. Bringing streetcars back to our roads is one. Opponents of the proposed $180 million streetcar system that would link downtown, Over-the-Rhine and the uptown neighborhoods see the initiative as misguided. Fix the roads. Build a jail. And, if you insist, upgrade the bus system to pacify mass transit users. Investing in basic services gives the taxpayer more bang for the buck, they say.

It’s a difficult argument to counter. With poverty gripping too many families, blighted housing and vacant storefronts plaguing neighborhoods, how can we spend money — a lot of money — on reintroducing streetcars, a technology the city abandoned in the 1950s to make way for highways and rubber-tire buses?

The opponents are asking the right question about getting the most for our hard-earned tax money. But according to proponents, they have reached the wrong conclusion, that investing in a streetcar line between the city’s two largest job centers and the faded architectural gem that is Over-the-Rhine will pay dividends far in excess of the capital that taxpayers put into it.

More than 40 other U.S. cities are trying to develop streetcar lines. Should Cincinnati be one of them?

The plan calls for a line that would run between the downtown riverfront and the uptown neighborhoods — Clifton, Clifton Heights, University Heights, Corryville and Fairview — that include the University of Cincinnati, six hospitals and the Cincinnati Zoo. It would connect the city’s two largest job centers — downtown and uptown — and run through Over-the-Rhine, long a target for revitalization with growing but mixed success.

The proposed route would end at the top of the hill on West Clifton Avenue, Vine Street, Reading Road or Gilbert Avenue, and would cost an estimated $130 million. The city hopes to raise enough money to simultaneously build an uptown loop connecting the university, hospitals and possibly the zoo that would push the total cost to about $180 million.

The funding plan is a work in progress that will vary greatly depending on how much, if any, federal stimulus money is attained. The city is not seeking a tax increase or new taxes in drafts of the plan that include:

• $25 million from the capital projects budget and Tax Increment Financing (TIF), taxes generated by new development along the route.

• $11 million from the sale of the city-owned Blue Ash Airport.

• $10 million from the state, which has not yet approved the expense.

• The remainder from some combination of federal stimulus funds, a federal earmark and private contributions.

The project has passionate supporters and detractors and many in the middle who want to see funding and route details before they weigh in.

The Rev. Dock Foster, pastor of Unity Baptist Church in East Walnut Hills, is president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Cincinnati, which voted to oppose the streetcar initiative. He looks around his and other predominantly black neighborhoods of Evanston, Avondale and Bond Hill and sees unemployment in the teens, poverty and despair. Pumping money into a streetcar that doesn’t run through any of those neighborhoods is an affront to him when he sees the need for direct investment in those neighborhoods to create jobs and alleviate suffering.

“A streetcar at this time is the wrong time,” Foster says. “We have so much poverty.”

Asked if the city can’t simultaneously build streetcar and work on neighborhood problems, Foster says, “Let’s see them working on the problems. We’re like the people in Missouri. Show me.”

As put by Ali (his full name), a community activist who works closely with Foster, “Do we need to heal our neighborhoods and benefit the city, or do we need to build a choo-choo train up Vine Street?”

Bishop Stephen Scott, a Unity Baptist Church member, says the streetcar plan ignores the neighborhoods. “They want the front door to look good and then you walk inside the house and it’s a mess,” he says.

How does City Council Member Chris Monzel object to the plan? Let him count the ways. “It’s the wrong route, the wrong financing and the wrong time,” he says. The Republican councilman says the first phase of any streetcar plan should loop through the uptown neighborhoods to truly connect it with downtown. The scaled-down $130 million plan that would bring the train up one of the hills wouldn’t connect enough people, he says.

The financing is flawed, too, Monzel says, because it uses city money that could fund additional phases of The Banks riverfront project. Using money from the Blue Ash airport sale doesn’t serve all 52 neighborhoods as pledged, he maintains. Instead of seeking stimulus money for streetcars, the city should fund crime prevention, rehabbing or razing blighted buildings and improving roads among other things, according to Monzel.

“To me, it’s finish The Banks first. We can’t be robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he says.

For Christopher Smitherman, president of the Cincinnati NAACP chapter and a former city councilman, Cincinnati should have different — and fewer — priorities.

“It’s not about being against a streetcar system. It’s about priorities in our community,” he notes. “If I had a choice, I’d like to see us finish The Banks project first and not use $25 million in TIF money for streetcars. We have a major complicated (Banks) project that requires cooperation between Cincinnati and Hamilton County. Let’s make sure we get it right.”

Smitherman says past cost overrides such as construction of Paul Brown Stadium and expansion of Findlay Market justify deep skepticism. “No, I have no confidence that when they put the streetcar on this line that it’s going to spur $1 billion in development. They don’t have a track record,” he says.

Finally, it’s a risk the current economy doesn’t justify, Smitherman says: “I think that this is too much money to commit in the middle of one of the greatest recessions this country has ever seen.”

The NAACP has teamed up with Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) to champion an amendment to the city charter that would require a citywide vote to approve of any expenditure to build streetcar or any other passenger rail.

“If you come together with a plan that is feasible and makes economic sense, there wouldn’t be a backlash,” says Jason Gloyd, COAST chairman. “The petition drive is to give people a voice.”

Gloyd says the amendment would prevent city leaders from circumventing the voters by starting the project without direct voter approval. “My biggest fear is that the money is going to be taken away from roads, highways and a bridge across the river (a replacement for the Brent Spence Bridge),” he says.

When it was pointed out that some tax dollars sought for streetcar come from funds that can’t be used for roads and bridges, Gloyd says, “It all comes from the same pot, and that’s the taxpayer’s.”

On the other side, the project has the enthusiastic support of Peter S. Strange, Messer Construction’s chairman and CEO and Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber board chairman. (Messer has pledged an undisclosed amount of money to the project for which it will receive public acknowledgement but no other direct return.)

“I think streetcar is a great idea,” Strange says. “We have to redefine what we call downtown in this city. We have it so narrowly defined south of uptownto the Ohio River. It will stimulate engagement along the whole route.”

The chamber has not yet taken a position on the streetcar proposal, awaiting details on funding and the route.

Mayor Mark Mallory and City Manager Milton Dohoney are leading the city’s charge for what they say would be a transformative public project.

“I support it because of the return it will get. A $1.4 billion economic impact would be very difficult for me as a leader to ignore,” Mallory says, referring to estimates of growth in the 2007 study. “Streetcars are being built all over the world. When you put lines on the ground, people invest, develop and build along those lines.”

Mallory says The Banks has the funding it needs, including federal stimulus dollars, to complete the first stages of its development while simultaneously building the streetcar system. The city will continue meeting its other responsibilities, too. “We can deliver our basic services. We do it everyday. It would be foolish to not take advantage of this investment potential,” he maintains.

Dohoney responded to every criticism of the project and explained why he thinks it has so much potential. A benefit to just a few neighborhoods? “I think that’s a false assumption. We all celebrated the fact that Graeter’s is going to build a new manufacturing facility in Bond Hill because they’re not just going to hire Bond Hill people. And as Graeter’s grows, it helps our tax base expand,” he says.

One project at a time? “That’s just not the way a progressive city operates,” Dohoney observes. “If we want to be an antiquated Cincinnati, we can do that. But if we want to be among the more progressive cities in the country, we will demonstrate the ability to do multiple, large projects simultaneously.”

He speaks of “stay-in-place” priorities like filling potholes and progressive ones that grow the city. “When I came to town two-and-a-half years ago, I listened to people in the corporate community and the neighborhoods, sat down with (then-University of Cincinnati President) Nancy Zimpher and (Xavier University President) Michael Graham. Everybody said this city needs to grow, to attract new people and retain young professionals. It needs to move past the shadows of years ago. Well, that’s what we’re trying to do,” he says.

There is a remedy if leaders fall short of expectations, Dohoney points out. “When we compare ourselves to other cities, not just in the region, they’re not trying to govern by referendum. If a poor job is done, you fire your city manager or vote out whoever you don’t like.”

Meg Olberding, the city’s public information officer, says many businesses are waiting to see how public funding comes together before making a firm financial commitment. “Once we can bring all those pieces together in a more refined picture, there’s a lot of interest to see how people can help the project cross the finish.”

City Council Member Chris Bortz became a champion of streetcar after reading the 2007 economic impact study and seeing success along lines built in other cities. “It’s very hard to conclude that this isn’t a very good investment. It has a higher return rate than roads, highways and freight. Given all the different levers we want to pull in our communities, you can have a transformative impact,” he says.

Bortz bristles at the suggestion Cincinnati’s current leaders couldn’t pull this project off given past failures. “This is the group that got The Banks moving. That’s a terrible argument not to do something transformative,” he says.

The cost overruns with Paul Brown Stadium and years of delay at The Banks were projects led by Hamilton County, not the city, Olberding adds.

The city has brought other projects in on budget and on time, she points out, including transforming Fort Washington Way, expanding the convention center and revitalizing Fountain Square.

David Dawson, a Sibcy Cline realtor and Mount Lookout resident, often gives tours to out-of-town executives considering a job offer from Children’s Hospital, Kroger or Procter & Gamble. Invariably, he says, they ask about transit options. “It’s amazing how even though we don’t have it on the ground yet, the comments are, wow, I didn’t realize Cincinnati is such a progressive city.”

Those potential residents have their pick of top cities around the country. Major league sports, art museums, the Cincinnati Opera, symphony, zoo and other attractions, coupled with affordable cost of living, stack up well against a lot of competitors. Streetcar, Dawson is convinced, could make the difference. “We’re not going to win out over Barcelona, maybe, but if it’s versus Minneapolis, Portland or Seattle, we will.”

Certainly new businesses and housing can follow streetcar lines. That means more jobs and new tax revenue that benefit every neighborhood. A 2007 study by HDR and Parsons Brinckerhoff commissioned by Cincinnati found a $2.8 billion impact in Portland Ore. since its streetcar was introduced 2001; a $1.1 billion impact in Tampa, Fla., since 2003; and $175 million impact in Kenosha, Wis., since 2000. Little Rock, Ark., Charlotte, N.C., and most recently Seattle (where the streetcar system opening in 2007) have all seen new businesses, jobs and residents flock to within three blocks of its lines, too.

On the front lines, Duane Donohue owns the former Red Top Brewery building on McMicken Street in a stretch of Over-the-Rhine that has been branded the Brewery District. A financing plan to convert the building into 20 condos fell apart last year when the economy tanked and investors pulled out. What would cinch the deal for him? More money invested in crime prevention? Litter control? Subsidizing private developments?

“Streetcar,” says Donohue. “It will make development in Over-the-Rhine happen. I think it’s cheaper than subsidizing every single unit in the neighborhood.”