Cincinnati City Council recommends approval of $17.4M for streetcar

Extra money OK'd in 5-4 vote

CINCINNATI - Call it the little train that could.

City Council's budget and finance committee voted 5-4 Monday to approve an extra $17.4 million in funding for Cincinnati's long planned streetcar project.

Responding to higher than expected construction bids submitted in February, council voted to kick in the additional cash but also implement increased oversight on the project.

A final decision is expected at council's Wednesday meeting.

Members voting for the extra money were Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, along with Laure Quinlivan, Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson and Wendell Young.

Opposed were members P.G. Sittenfeld, Christopher Smitherman, Pamula Thomas and Charlie Winburn.

The vote is one of the last decisions City Council will make before taking a summer recess at month's end.

Noting the project is estimated to have a three-to-one return on investment by sparking redevelopment along its route, Qualls said the streetcar is essential to continue the city's growth.

"This is time to take a giant step forward instead of limping back," Qualls said.

The extra money will come from several sources. They include $6.5 million from a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district near the Horseshoe Casino; $5.4 million borrowed from money set aside to renovate Music Hall, which isn't needed until 2016; $400,000 from a traffic signal replacement fund; $500,000 from a water main replacement fund; and issuing $4.6 million in general capital debt.

Cash taken from the traffic signal replacement fund will be used to replace traffic signals along the streetcar route, while money taken from the Water Works capital budget will be used to replace or relocate water mains along the route.

The city's annual debt service payment on the bonds will be $340,000, Qualls said.

Since the project was first proposed in 2007, it has survived two referendum attempts to block it. Also, it survived having $52 million in funding pulled by Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Referring to opponents, Young said, "Two referendums and they still won't go way. It's no, no, no, no ... this is another part of building the Cincinnati of the future."

Smitherman worried that the project -- which will have $3.5 million in annual operating costs -- would drain the city's coffers.

"My vision is that the city of Cincinnati not face bankruptcy," Smitherman said. "Bankruptcy is not progress."

To help ensure greater transparency for the project, Qualls introduced a proposal calling for monthly progress reports for council's finance committee and the public.

Additionally, Qualls' motion makes city administrators implement more specific timelines for the project, along with performance measures, progress on bid packages and the status of inclusion among employees.

Cincinnati's streetcar system was initially estimated to cost $110 million, then about $125.4 million. Of that amount, about $39.9 million comes from federal grants.

Cincinnati's streetcar system would follow a 3.6-mile looped route.

It would extend from the riverfront through downtown and north to Over-the-Rhine, ending near Findlay Market.

Supporters contend the system's primary benefit is as an economic development tool. It would spark redevelopment of vacant or rundown properties along the route, as a similar project did in Portland, Ore., they said.

Opponents counter the project won't yield the same level of benefits here, and that the money could be better spent on other mass transit projects.

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