The city’s plan would run streetcars like this on fixed tracks along Vine Street, connecting Over-the-Rhine with downtown.
In the famous Monty Python sketch, the Black Knight has his arm lopped off by King Arthur, but still insists, “It’s only a scratch. I’ve had worse.” Even after losing an arm and a leg, he defiantly shouts, “I’m invincible” and offers to “call it a draw.”

Except for the British accent, that sounds like Cincinnati’s streetcar supporters.

In a monsoon of federal spending, Cincinnati couldn’t get a raindrop of cash. In the recent transportation-spending bill, the city reached for $60 million toward its $185 million streetcar project — and got both arms lopped off instead.

Yet the mayor and others defiantly proclaimed, “It’s not dead yet.”

If not, it’s doing an excellent impression of a corpse.

It’s a crushing blow to streetcar backers who hoped the project could spark a revival of Over-The-Rhine along Vine Street, jolt economic development and make downtown more attractive to young, urban professionals.

Nobody has been a more faithful supporter of that dream than Councilman Chris Bortz. But he knows reality when he sees it. “The whole thing stops without federal support,” he says. “It’s a very big setback, and it has little to do with the quality of the project and everything to do with politics.”

While Tucson, New Orleans, Dallas and Portland, Ore., shared a rain barrel of $154 million in federal support, Cincinnati was left high and dry. “New Orleans got their entire cost,” Bortz points out. “But not a single Southwest Ohio representative in Washington supported our plan. Nobody touched it.”

He says that’s “an embarrassment for all of us that Cincinnati is so easily ignored.” But it’s not the first time the streetcars have been jilted.

Even before the anemic economy provided an excuse, local business leaders derailed an early plan that called for $30 million in private-sector contributions.

Streetcar supporters insist no streets will be torn up if the money’s not there. But the city has already authorized $800,000 on planning and design. Council opponents such as Chris Monzel say spending has been hidden.

There are many good arguments on both sides. But this much is obvious: The plan to lay tracks without a tax is looking wildly optimistic.

Voters should be asked, and that includes a dedicated streetcar tax of some kind to protect taxpayers from sticker-shock overruns, operating losses and other unexpected costs that doomed the abandoned subway under Central Parkway almost 100 years ago.

In November, voters rejected a proposal from streetcar opponents that coupled streetcars to high-speed rail and would have required elections on every rail project. But voters have not been given a chance to vote yes or no on streetcars.

Passing anything in the current climate is more of an uphill climb than running streetcars from downtown to the University of Cincinnati campus. Distrust of government spending is at an all-time high; voters are tax-weary; and the city can barely keep cops on the street as it covers deficits with tape and chewing gum and scrambles to spackle holes in its pension plan.

But unless something changes dramatically, the city should get voter permission before it spends another dime on streetcars. As the Black Knight would say, “Call it a draw.”