CINCINNATI - Cincinnati's $128 million streetcar project is facing a new challenge that threatens to delay or derail the effort.
Duke Energy officials sent a letter to Mayor Mark Mallory saying they believe negotiations on relocating utilities are at an impasse.
Johnna Reeder, Duke's Vice-President of Community Relations and Economic Development, said the company supports the streetcar, but that no work will be done until two issues are resolved.
"The first is safety concerns for our employees and for the riders of the streetcar," she said. The second is who pays the cost for the relocation of our infrastructure."
Cincinnati City Manager Milton Dohoney, Jr. said the streetcar project is moving forward and acknowledged the scope and cost of utility coordination is an issue.
"We hope that Duke Energy will be reasonable in finding a workable solution," he said. "Walking away does not help to move the city forward."
Reeder said the utility's cost estimated for moving natural gas, electric, chilled water and fiber lines is $18.7 million, yet the city has offered $6 million.
She said that if the company has to pay the higher price, it would be passed along to all Ohio customers – even those who live outside the city of Cincinnati.
"The opinion of Duke Energy is that these are project costs," she said. "Our priority is to make sure that our customers' rates are as low as possible and we do not think that our customers should have to pay for project costs."
Dohoney countered that he wants Duke officials to prove that their cost figures are accurate.
"This is an old city with an old infrastructure," he said. "That infrastructure is going to have to be updated anyway. It is not fair to say that the modernization of those assets should be the responsibility of the project."
The safety question deals with Duke's insistence that the utility lines be moved at least eight feet from the side of any moving streetcars.
Reeder said that would allow Duke employees to perform maintenance without fear of injury and keep streetcar customers safe.
"Would you want your employees to be closer to the edge of a streetcar than eight feet when they're working on dangerous equipment?" she said. "Would you want riders to be on the streetcar riding when we have gas pipes closer than eight feet?"
Dohoney said the city thinks that three feet is a reasonable distance and if it's not, he wants Duke to prove it.
He added that the streetcar will run 18-hours a day, so maintenance could be done in those off-hours.
According to Dohoney, officials from the city and Duke were set to go to Portland to see if a compromise could be worked out, but that Duke backed out at the last minute.
All this occurred while Mayor Mallory is in Washington, D.C., for the 3rd Annual Streetcar Summit.
He was invited to the two-day event to share Cincinnati's development strategies with other cities building streetcars and learn about new federal funding opportunities.
The mayor issued a statement calling Duke's decision to "walk away from their commitment "unfortunate" and "disappointing."
"I am calling on Duke Energy to be reasonable and work with the city on a plan that will be best for both citizens and their customers," he said.
Reeder replied, "The city has been a wonderful partner and I'm hoping we can come to compromise."