Qualls: No 'blank check' for streetcar project, tells staffers to stay within budget

Vice mayor says high bids raise 'serious concerns'

CINCINNATI - On the same day it was revealed construction bids to build part of Cincinnati's streetcar system came in higher than estimated, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls is reminding city administrators they don't have a "blank check" for the project.

In a memo sent Thursday afternoon to City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr., Qualls instructed staffers to review the construction bids and scale back the project, if necessary.

"I understand that the administration is scrutinizing the bid documents to determine the basis for the construction cost estimates," Qualls wrote.

"lf these new numbers are confirmed, then I believe it is time for the city to step back, put the project through intensive value engineering, and bring the project's costs back into line," the memo added.

Qualls is a streetcar supporter who is running for mayor this fall.

One of her opponents, ex-Councilman John Cranley, held a press conference Thursday morning urging Qualls and City Council to cancel the streetcar project in light of the higher bids.

Bids to install the tracks, build shelters and buy ticket machines for the system were $26 million to $43 million higher than estimated, city officials learned this week.

City officials estimated the cost would be about $44.6 million. The bids ranged from $70.9 million to $87.5 million.

The added expense could push the project's cost – variously estimated at $110 million to $125 million – to $130 million or more.

Qualls said a significantly higher price tag is unacceptable.

"Whether people support or oppose the streetcar project, everyone has a vested interest in getting the most for our public dollars, and in having the highest confidence in the management of the project," Qualls wrote in her memo.

"While a council majority has continued to support the project, council has not given the administration a ‘blank check,'" the memo continued.

Qualls said City Hall's goal should be to have the streetcar system operational by the All Star-Game in July 2015 and accomplish that within the budget.

In her memo, Qualls emphasized the project's importance as an economic development tool.

The system will eventually connect the city's two largest employment centers: downtown with 60,000 employees and 15,000 residents; and the uptown medical-university area with almost 60,000 employees and 50,000 residents.

"The ultimate connection to the uptown area is of significant importance because the streetcar investment will support the uptown area's job growth that could be limited due to excessive parking demands and traffic congestion," she wrote.

"Although Phase 1 does not reach uptown, it is the ultimate goal of this undertaking."

Meanwhile, a pro-streetcar group -- Cincinnatians for Progress -- urged City Council to stay the course. Cancelling the project would jeopardize potential federal funding for other projects, it said.

"Cincinnatians for Progress consider any suggestion of abandoning the streetcar project to be utterly irresponsible," said a statement issued by the group. "Not only would it cost the city millions immediately, it could make make it extremely difficult to seek federal aid for future transportation development."

It added, "Federal agencies prefer to allocate funds where they will be put to the use intended in the manner and on the timetable proposed. For Cincinnati to suddenly cancel a modest project that has been in the works for more than five years would brand the city as an unreliable partner for long-term development efforts."

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