Cincinnati streetcar: Impasse over project may be ending

6 council members sent letter to feds

CINCINNATI -- In what may signal a break in the impasse about continuing Cincinnati’s streetcar project, six City Council members sent a letter Monday to federal transit officials.

The letter stated, “For the first time since the new mayor and council were sworn in earlier this month, we are beginning to see a viable path forward to complete construction on this first phase of the project.”

“Public and private sector leaders are actively collaborating to explore a number of channels through which to make the streetcar’s annual operating expenses manageable,” the letter continued.

The letter was sent to Peter Rogoff, head of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

Rogoff previously told City Council that if construction on the streetcar system didn’t resume by Dec. 19, it probably would lose $44.9 million in federal grants for the project.

Council Members Kevin Flynn, David Mann, Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson, P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young signed the letter.

The council's letter asks the FTA for information on the methods used by other cities to cover operating costs. Also, it seeks clarity about when the local streetcar project must identify its financing mechanism for operating costs.

Streetcar supporters are trying to raise commitments for $80 million from private donors to pay for operating costs over a 30-year period.

Newly elected Mayor John Cranley, who campaigned on ending the project, has said any pledges of money must be legally binding.

Flynn and Mann are considered council’s swing votes on the streetcar project.

A vote by at least one of them is needed to resume construction, and support from both members would be needed to override any potential veto by Cranley.

Cincinnati’s streetcar project has an estimated price of $133 million to $148 million.

Construction began in August, and about $32 million has been spent so far.

City Council voted 5-4 earlier this month to suspend work on the streetcar, pending the results of an independent audit.

A decision whether to continue or cancel the project is likely within a few days:

  • City Council will accept more public comment at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, just before its regular meeting;
  • Council's streetcar committee will meet at 9 a.m. Thursday, to review audit results; and
  • The full City Council will vote on the project in a special session at 2 p.m. Thursday.

KPMG began work on the audit last week and it’s expected to be completed Tuesday. The audit’s scope includes calculating the cost to end the project, as well as completing the current phase.

Also, the audit will evaluate operating and maintenance costs for 30 years; and review how city staff devised earlier estimates about cancelation costs.

Previous estimates by city administrators stated it would cost between $34.6 million and $51.6 million to stop the project; and between $52 million and $74 million to complete it.

A pro-streetcar group will meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday to tally the signatures it has collected on petitions during the past few days.

Project supporters want voters to decide on continuing the project once and for all. In 2009 and 2011, the streetcar faced unsuccessful referendums that would’ve blocked its completion.

Only about one-third of the petitions distributed had been turned in by Monday morning. They contained about 7,000 signatures.

If the pace continues, it means about 21,000 signatures will have been gathered in the past five days.

Supporters need to collect 5,970 signatures of registered city voters to qualify for the ballot, and have set a goal of getting 12,000 within five days – which was Sunday night.

If successful, a special election must be held two to four months after an amendment is certified for the ballot.

If circulators gather signatures quickly enough, that means a special election likely would be held in February at a cost of $400,000.

The streetcar’s first phase is a 3.6-mile looped route through downtown and Over-the-Rhine, with 18 stops. The project will cost between $133 million and $148 million to complete.

Of the amount, $44.9 million comes from federal grants that Cincinnati could lose if the project is canceled.

The system’s primary function is to spark redevelopment along its route, and earlier city studies indicated it would generate $2.70 for every $1 spent.

Opponents question the studies, and said operating expenses would be a burden on the city’s budget.

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