Cincinnati streetcar project: DOT pledges another $5 million with strings - and warning - attached
Greg Noble, WCPO Digital
4:30 PM, Jun 21, 2013
12:32 AM, Jun 22, 2013
CINCINNATI - The Secretary of Transportation has pledged another $5 million for the city's troubled streetcar project with several strings attached, as well as a warning that the DOT will take back $35.9 million in previous funding if the streetcar is not completed.
In a letter to Mayor Mark Mallory dated June 19, Secretary Ray LaHood also said this would be the DOT's last contribution to the streetcar.
LaHood's letter laid down several conditions for the extra $5 million. One requires City Council to identify no less than $17.4 million in non-federal funds to cover cost overruns caused by construction bids coming in higher than estimated in February.
The other conditions require the city to:
• Construct the full scope of the project, including length, number of stations and station shelters. • Restore the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition and passenger information system, which was reduced as a cost-saving measure. • Restore a screen or wall that the State Historic Preservation Office requested to shield power substations from public view.
LaHood said he made the new pledge to help cover the higher construction bids, calling them "not entirely unusual."
"The DOT continues to support your bold vision for economic development and enhanced transportation sources for the city of Cincinnati and we believe that this project is a significant component of that vision," LaHood wrote.
But the streetcar has come under increasing fire from opponents who want the city to scuttle the project.
Last month, two Hamilton County commissioners, Republicans Chris Monzel and Greg Hartmann, asked the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) to rescind a $4 million grant for the streetcar. They cited cost overruns and said the money could be better used on infrastructure projects throughout the region.
OKI Director Mark Policinski said if the grant is pulled, the money will become subject to a statewide competition and might not return to the Tri-State.
As WCPO Digital first reported April 16, the streetcar project is facing the shortfall because bids submitted in February to install tracks, build shelters and buy ticket machines for the system were $26 million to $44 million higher than estimated by the city.
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 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.
WCPODigital reporter Kevin Osborne contributed to this story.