Cincinnati streetcar: City Council narrowly votes to halt project for now

Charter amendment is likely, but will it matter?

CINCINNATI -- Mayor John Cranley and a majority of the new Cincinnati City Council kept a campaign promise Wednesday, voting to suspend work on the streetcar project pending an audit.

Council voted 5-4 to suspend the work, just days after Cranley and members of the current group were sworn into office Sunday.

Voting in favor of the suspension were Kevin Flynn, David Mann, Amy Murray, Christopher Smitherman and Charlie Winburn.

Opposed to the suspension were Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson, P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young.

The action means virtually all work will be stopped for an indefinite period of time until an auditing firm is selected and conducts a thorough review of the project.

Although there is no time limit on the pause, Acting City Manager Scott Stiles has been in talks with a local auditing firm.

The firm could probably begin its work “in a couple of days,” Stiles said, and would take roughly 14 days to complete it.

The audit will review how much money has been spent; recalculate how much it may cost the city to cancel the project permanently; and how much future costs would be if completed.

Cranley campaigned on ending the $133 million streetcar project, but a council majority wanted a more thorough accounting of expenses before deciding.

“Council has asked to take a pause, which I support,” Cranley said after Wednesday’s meeting.

Discussed since 2007, streetcar construction began in August with crews relocating utilities and installing tracks. About $32 million has been spent on work so far.

Cranley compared the project to investing in the stock market. Sometimes stocks fall in price, meaning its better to accept any losses and sell, rather than incur more expense.

Just because the city would suffer some losses, Cranley said, “doesn't mean it's rational to keep spending money.”

John Deatrick, the city’s streetcar project executive, has estimated it will cost between $34.6 million and $51.6 million to stop the project; and between $52 million and $74 million to complete it.

Supporters think Cincinnati’s project will spark redevelopment of vacant or dilapidated parcels along its route, like similar projects have done in Portland, Ore., and Tacoma, Wash.

The development would add new jobs and residents, increasing the city’s tax base, supporters said.

Opponents counter the project’s benefit is too uncertain and the estimated $3 million to $4 million in annual operating costs will strain the city’s budget.

Also, they think the link showing a streetcar system sparks development is too tentative, and may not trigger the same results in Cincinnati.

Both sides of the debate alleged the other was being disingenuous, using procedural maneuvers to attain its goal.

Project opponents on City Council included spending ordinances in the suspension effort, which blocks any referendum attempt by voters.

If streetcar backers collected enough signatures for a referendum, it legally would have to be decided in November 2014. The city would be forced to continue spending on the project for another 11 months.

Instead of a referendum, a council majority supports allowing voters to decide on a charter amendment that would allow the project to continue. A charter amendment would appear on the May 2014 ballot, and spending could be halted until then.

“I’ve said all along that I support a straight up or down vote on the streetcar, as long as we don’t have to continue spending until then,” Cranley said.

But streetcar supporters worry that any delay in the project will cause the Federal Transit Administration to pull $44.9 million in grants and give them to another city.

“It could end up being that there’s a charter amendment that passes, but there is no money to continue the project,” Young said. “I call this a very rotten trick.”

About 30 residents spoke at council’s Wednesday meeting, and dozens more at sessions on Monday and Tuesday. Most were project supporters.

With heated emotions from many residents who spoke and among some council members, there was a large police presence at City Hall during the meetings. At least seven officers patrolled the halls and council chambers Wednesday.

Asked by WCPO after the meeting, Cranley said he didn't request the officers. The police department decided to assign the officers after threats were made against him on social media, the mayor said.

If the first phase of the streetcar project eventually is completed as scheduled in 2016, the system will feature a 3.6-mile looped route with 18 stops in downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

For a full live blog recap of the happenings at city council Wednesday, click here.

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