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Cincinnati streetcar: After hours of debate, City Council edges closer to suspending project

Mgr: May cost up to $52M to stop, $74M to finish

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CINCINNATI -- After eight hours of meetings and listening to more than 60 residents speak, Cincinnati City Council took the first step Monday to suspend work on the streetcar project.

In the new council’s first action since taking office Sunday, the group debated 11 ordinances and one motion – all aimed at postponing the project and ending further spending until an independent audit is conducted.

“This is a great day for Cincinnati,” said Mayor John Cranley, after the group adjourned its meeting Monday night.

Cranley and some members of the new City Council campaigned on ending the $133 million streetcar project.

Although Cranley wants to cancel the project outright, some council members prefer holding off on a final decision until an audit is completed.

The audit would offer a new assessment on the costs to cancel the project, as well as on potential costs to complete the 3.6-mile looped route through downtown and Over-the-Rhine. It would be completed within 30 days.

A simple majority of the nine-member City Council supports suspending work on the project while an audit is completed. But there weren’t seven votes Monday to allow an immediate vote, as required under council’s rules.

As a result, the ordinances must be read at three separate meetings before council can vote.

City Council has scheduled a special session at 2 p.m. Tuesday, and then will likely vote on suspending work on the project at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

Just before council’s meeting began Monday, officials received a letter stating the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is freezing further federal spending on the project until City Council makes a decision.

“The (FTA) administrator decided to restrict further access to the federal project funds until the FTA received an affirmative signal from the city's newly elected officials that the city intends to proceed with the project on the agreed-upon schedule,” wrote FTA regional administrator Marisol Simon.

“The measure was taken to protect the taxpayer funds not yet drawn down by the city from being subject to a potential debt collection action,” the letter continued.

Jay Kincaid, Cranley’s chief of staff, said the FTA’s action makes it more important that City Council act quickly to freeze local funding.

“It’s more imperative to stop the spending because it's only local dollars available to be spent,” Kincaid said.

During questioning by council members, Streetcar Project Executive John Deatrick compared the costs of canceling the project to those for moving forward.

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, Deatrick said.

That’s a difference of $17.4 million in the best-case scenario, and a difference of $22.4 million in the worst-case scenario.

So far, $32.8 million has been spent or incurred on the project.

Streetcar supporters note, however, the city likely will forfeit another $44.9 million in federal grants for the project.

Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld said too much money has been spent to stop now.

“I've had misgivings about this project,” Sittenfeld said, “(but) we are in deep enough that the dollars to cancel cannot be justified.”

Some media have reported the city is spending an average of $50,000 per day on the project, but Deatrick said the amount isn’t accurate.

“We're probably spending more than that, potentially up to twice that amount,” Deatrick told council.

In all, 62 residents spoke at council’s meeting. The vast majority supported the streetcar project.

“The positive benefits from streetcar and light rail investments are not speculative,” said resident Bill Bauman. “Please don't stop our momentum.”

But Cranley said efforts to redevelop downtown and Over-the-Rhine will continue regardless of the project’s fate.

“I appreciate your passion,” Cranley told the crowd, adding, “We believe in Cincinnati with or without a streetcar. Our progress will continue.”

Although ex-City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. once said building the streetcar project’s first phase isn’t worthwhile unless a connector eventually is built to the uptown area, Deatrick disagreed.

“I do believe Phase 1A is a good stand-alone system and will operate successfully even if we never go up the hill,” Deatrick said.

Copyright 2013 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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