CINCINNATI - Two Hamilton County commissioners are asking a regional government group to consider rescinding a $4 million grant for the city of Cincinnati’s troubled streetcar project.
Commissioners Chris Monzel and Greg Hartmann, both Republicans, sent the letter late Wednesday to the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI).
“In light of the city’s projected significant cost overruns on the Cincinnati Streetcar project, we believe the $4 million in OKI funds currently reserved for the streetcar project could be better utilized on infrastructure projects that would benefit not only the residents of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, but the hundreds of thousands in the region who work or engage in commerce,” the letter stated.
The third county commissioner, Democrat Todd Portune, didn’t sign the letter because he said it would be a conflict of interest as he serves as president of OKI’s board of directors.
But 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.
"We no longer control those funds directly," Policinski said. "They go into a statewide pot of money. That money doesn't necessarily come back to the region. We'd have to compete for it."
OKI's staff doesn't recall any instance of revoking committed funds from a jurisdiction, against the will of the jurisdiction.
Portune had conversations with Monzel’s chief of staff about the request before the letter was sent. He hasn't said whether he supports the request, but did note the streetcar's project scope has shrunk since the grant was approved.
Planned since 2007, Cincinnati’s streetcar project has faced several delays over the years. The latest hurdle is a $17.4 million shortfall in funding, caused by construction bids coming in higher than estimated in February.
Cincinnati City Council must decide on a Fiscal Year 2014 budget by June 1. If the project is to continue, council must identify $17.4 million in additional funding as part of the spending plan.
So far, City Council hasn’t yet publicly made a proposal for the extra streetcar cash.
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.
As a result, the April 8 date to begin construction passed without the lowest bidder, Messer Construction, starting the work.
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.
The money pledged by OKI toward the streetcar comes from a federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grant.
According to Monzel, OKI has already “taken steps to address the legal concerns this request presents and offered details as to what steps would need to be taken for the funding to be reallocated.”
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.