Some Cincinnati boosters see the city’s fortunes tied to high-profile projects like The Banks or the tiara-topped Queen City Square skyscraper.

Mark Policinski, executive director of the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments, points to the diesel-spewing locomotives and the hundreds of train cars brimming with cargo that trail them at the Queensgate rail yard.
“It’s the quintessential issue, the movement of goods, that’s going to determine transportation policy and our economic competitiveness for the next 20 years,” he predicts.
Policinski brought a wealth of government and private sector experience to town when he joined OKI in 2003. He has been chief executive officer of Brown Publishing and vice president of the CoStar Group. In Washington, Policinski was senior economist for the Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill and associate deputy secretary with the U.S. Department of Commerce under President Reagan.
Overseeing OKI, which includes elected officials from eight counties in three states and numerous big and small cities, requires patience and perseverance. Policinski has both qualities and a sense of humor to boot, which comes in handy when dealing with a 119-member board, including 66 elected officials of all stripes, and dealing with government bureaucracies at every level.
His bottom line is moving the region’s economy forward through constant attention to transportation challenges and other planning efforts. Policinski is excited by the Tristate’s success bucking the trend of economic hardship that other Ohio and Midwest cities have faced, and he’s optimistic about Greater Cincinnati’s future. Success, he believes, starts with a focus on a few major problems and challenges and real cooperation among government and business leaders.
In an ever-more intertwined global economy, products can come from or be shipped to anywhere. And they move at break-neck speed, resulting in warehouses on wheels for modern companies that strive to keep their inventories at a minimum and their products selling nearly as soon as they arrive in stores or warehouses.

Greater Cincinnati doesn’t need to worry whether those goods come from China or Chillicothe or where its goods are headed. The key, Policinski thinks, is to stay in the thick of the rapidly growing rail pipeline that runs right through the city.

“If $4-a-gallon gasoline is causing people to rethink, one of the prime things we have to rethink is how we’re going to handle freight. Now we use trucks, and we can’t afford to do that because of congestion, the cost to business, the environment and just plain old efficiency,” he says.

A rail boom is on. Norfolk Southern has created a massive distribution center at Columbus’ Rickenbacker intermodal terminal, formerly an Air Force base, that is directly linked to a deepwater port in Norfolk, Va. CSX has added a distribution center in New Baltimore, Ohio, to bypass Chicago’s bottleneck.

“We had better be able to accept those goods and get our goods out through those facilities, or we’re going to fall behind,” Policinski notes.
He and OKI are focused on a relatively cheap solution to the problem of how to ensure even more freight runs through Cincinnati. Five overpasses between Cincinnati and Rickenbacker prevent Norfolk Southern from double-stacking cars that travel between the cities. The answer, Policinski says, is a $5 million investment to remove or reconfigure those overpasses and to add a track at the Queensgate yard to help ease a growing bottleneck.

OKI is also working with the railroads to replace locomotives’ engines — which have to run non-stop to keep engine oil flowing — with new three-stage engines that can idle at one-third power and greatly reduce air pollution.
In 2002, Hamilton County voters emphatically rejected a sales tax levy to expand Metro’s bus system and fund a light rail line. Since then, the price of gas has tripled and Greater Cincinnati’s roads have only grown more congested. Is the Tristate ready to embrace passenger rail? Not quite, Policinski says, but the debate needs to be renewed.

“There are three economic engines: Uptown with its 60,000 jobs, the central business district and Northern Kentucky growing like a weed. If we can connect those three economic engines, we’re not going to be the envy of Ohio. We’re going to be the envy of the nation,” he remarks.
The link, he suggests, is a street car system, which Cincinnati officials are trying to add to Downtown, Over-the-Rhine and the Uptown neighborhoods, which include six hospitals and the University of Cincinnati.

Policinski would like to see that effort come to fruition and for Northern Kentucky to get in the act by building a street car link to Cincinnati’s system. He is quick to note that OKI’s board has not endorsed the street car concept.

The key to getting majority support on Cincinnati City Council for street cars was emphasizing the system as an economic development engine, and he credits Councilman Chris Bortz for doing the framing.

As for light rail, which would cost billions and take far longer to construct than a street car network, the conversation should continue, Policinski says.

“What we have tried to do is say at some point that we’re going to have to reconsider this,” he explains. “And when we do, the debate cannot be if you don’t do this, you’re stupid. The argument to take to the public is how it’s going to benefit them. And you also have to figure out how you’re going to pay for it.”

But OKI hasn’t seen a rush to revive a system that voters rejected 2-to-1 six years ago. “Bortz’s work on the street car proposal has opened up the door. I don’t see a lot of elected public officials wanting to walk through the door. They’re waiting to see what happens with the price of fuel,” he says.
Policinski believes it’s too early to tailor public policy around sky-high gas prices because the verdict on oil’s future is still in doubt, with many projecting rising prices and others predicting a dip.

“We don’t know if there’s been a permanent shift,” he points out. “Maybe that’s how the ship turns. Maybe it’s such a monumental shift in our behavior that we do it in very small increments. But without a doubt $4-a-gallon gas has everybody thinking what this means to them and their organization.”

The whole debate about passenger rail is moot without federal funding, Policinski adds, which OKI is working to overhaul.

“Why does it take 20 years to replace the Brent Spence Bridge?” Policinski asks with more than a little exasperation in his voice. “We waste all of this money, and inflation just kills us.”

The answer is the byzantine structure of federal transportation rules that force cities and states to spend years seeking funding in piecemeal increments. OKI is lobbying Congress to streamline the process when the transportation plan is reauthorized in 2009.

The organization is trying to tackle the federal funding question from other angles, too, including legal changes to allow more public-private partnerships. OKI is pushing Congress to create regional infrastructure improvement zones in which private entities can help fund public projects that benefit them and get a tax deduction. An example, Policinski says, would be businesses that occupy four corners of a gridlocked intersection could help fund construction of a turn lane that would benefit the public and the businesses.

“Congestion has a lot to do with your ability to compete, and businesses are going to face this problem,” he notes.

Ohio has a long list of unfunded road and bridge projects. Policinski says it’s time for Ohio’s lawmakers to follow Indiana’s lead and lease toll roads to private companies. Indiana’s road projects are fully funded for the next 10 years thanks to $3.8 billion it received when it leased the Indiana Toll Road to an Australian-Spanish consortium. Policinski says the Ohio Toll Road would bring in much more.

“Let’s just say the Ohio Toll Road could only bring in $10 billion. We can finance all the projects that are on backload. We can start talking seriously about passenger rail. We can start talking about an infrastructure bank here in Ohio that really has money to lend to Ohio businesses,” he says.

None of this will happen without a fully engaged business community, Policinski comments.

Cincinnati’s businesses will leave the region’s transportation challenges to the public sector at their own peril, he says.
“This is economic competitiveness that we’re talking about. It used to be that transportation was one of the pillars that you built your business community on. That pillar is getting really fat, and businesses cannot afford to sit back and say that’s a government problem. Because if they let government do this on their own, government will mess this up,” he says. “My advice is that the private sector has to be absolutely engaged.”
Government benefits, too, from inviting business leaders to be part of the process. Policinski says OKI held very productive meetings with leaders of Norfolk Southern and CSX, largely thanks to stacking OKI’s delegation with business leaders as well as government officials.
“We are growing in this region. We have tremendous assets. And we are on the radar,” he observes. “We have to make sure that this region works together so that we can continue to have sustainable growth and that we can be as economically competitive tomorrow as we are today.”