'We're going to have a streetcar;' City Council votes 6-3 to restart project

CINCINNATI -- In a turnabout that seemed unlikely just two weeks ago, Cincinnati City Council voted Thursday to restart the troubled streetcar project.

Vice Mayor David Mann and Councilman Kevin Flynn provided the swing votes for saving the project, which council did in a 6-3 vote.

Because that is a super-majority of city council, any potential veto by Mayor John Cranley would’ve been overturned.

“I believe in Cincinnati with or without a streetcar,” Cranley said at a hastily called press conference before council’s Thursday afternoon vote. “We're going to have a streetcar.”

A large crowd of streetcar supporters gathered in council chambers broke into applause and cheers upon the vote, and gave city council a standing ovation.

Mann was convinced to support continuing the controversial project after an independent audit this week showed the costs for canceling it were similar to the amount needed to complete it.

Flynn decided to support the project after the Haile U.S. Bank Foundation pledged to pay $9 million over a decade – $900,000 each year – to help pay for the streetcar’s operating costs.

Flynn brokered the deal in a series of telephone calls with Haile between city council’s morning and afternoon meetings. The uncertainty about his stance on the issue led to a suspenseful, sometimes tense atmosphere at city hall among council members and dozens of streetcar supporters who waited for the vote.

“We were faced with the risk of a significant downside” if the project was canceled, Flynn said after the meeting.

An audit by KPMG released Wednesday found the cancelation cost was between $16.3 million and $46.1 million. The estimate didn’t include damages that might be won by any potential litigation by disgruntled contractors working on the project.

READ MORE: Audit: Would cost up to $80M to cancel streetcar, up to $105M to complete it

Estimates on the cost for completing the project is $68.9 million, KPMG said.

“At this point, it was about the mitigation of risk,” Flynn said, explaining his vote. We’re mitigating as much as we could in 48 hours.”

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

KPMG’s audit found the streetcar system’s annual operating costs would be between $1.88 million and $2.44 million, after taking into account various revenue sources like fares and advertising.

Council members and streetcar supporters said they would work to seek more donations for the costs from the business community.

“I will start tomorrow,” Flynn said. “I'm going to sleep tonight.”

Cranley said he is still opposed the project, but would allow the restart legislation to take effect without his signature.

“For whatever reason, city council disagrees with me,” the mayor said. “As I tell my son when he doesn't get his way, 'It's time to move on.' It's time to move on and do great things.”

Cranley openly worried that council's action would make it difficult to balance the city's budget without jeopardizing basic services like police and fire protection.

"Unfortunately, we're going to have to do some unpleasant things to get our fiscal house in order," the mayor said.

“This is a tough issue. It's a tough issue for all of us,” Mann said. “I am glad this issue is done and over with... it has been so divisive.”

Opposing the project’s restart were Republicans Amy Murray and Charlie Winburn, and Independent Christopher Smitherman.

Councilman Wendell Young, a streetcar supporter, cautioned residents who back the project not to gloat about the victory.

“We need to look for ways to mend fences,” Young said. Noting Cranley allowed the public to sound off about the project in several meetings during the past week, he added, “the mayor deserves some credit.”

Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, another streetcar supporter, also struck a conciliatory tone.

“Let's come back in the New Year and show a renewed level of unity on so many issues,” Sittenfeld said.

If council hadn’t decided by midnight Thursday, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) had said it would rescind $44.9 million in grants. The action would effectively have killed the project.

FTA administrator Peter Rogoff sent City Council a letter after its vote, praising the action.

“We commend the leadership of Cincinnati for moving forward on a project that holds the real promise of transforming Cincinnati communities and accelerating economic growth in the region,” Rogoff wrote.

“These are the benefits that the U.S. Department of Transportation saw when we chose to invest nearly $45 million in the city’s bold vision,” the letter added. “Now, we can all get back to work as partners to get the streetcar project done.”

John Deatrick, the city’s streetcar project executive, said although work technically could begin on Dec. 24, although he didn’t know if it would resume on Christmas Eve.

“They have a lot of work to do to gear up and get back in operation,” Deatrick said, referring to contractors.

Deatrick vowed to

work to find additional cost savings on the project, a goal sought by Cranley.

“I welcome the oversight,” Deatrick said. “Just like the audit, it will make it a better project.”

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

Construction began in August, and about $34 million has been spent so far.

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.

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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