Cincinnati streetcar: Ballot issue likely, but when and at what cost?

Council majority supports a public vote

CINCINNATI -- Newly elected Cincinnati City Councilman Kevin Flynn has a message for streetcar supporters: Bring him a petition to put the project before voters in an election, and he will sign.

But that doesn’t mean Flynn won’t vote to cancel the project when City Council considers the issue Dec. 18.

It also doesn’t mean Flynn will vote to support the streetcar if its supporters are successful in their petition effort and place a charter amendment on the ballot.

“I’ll sign the petition. I want people to have a vote,” said Flynn, a Charterite who took office Dec. 1. “That doesn’t mean I support the intent of the amendment. I oppose it.”

Flynn is considered one of two swing votes on council that could either save or cancel the project; the other is Vice Mayor David Mann. Like Flynn, Mann has said he’s undecided on the project, too.

“I’m leaning toward canceling the project, subject to my mind being changed if the audit shows the cost to cancel it is similar to the cost to complete it,” Flynn said.

Mayor John Cranley and Flynn have called a press conference for Thursday morning to make what the mayor says is a "major" announcement regarding the streetcar.

Cranley and Flynn will be joined by representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police, Firefighters Local 48, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and Cincinnati Organized and Dedicated Employees (CODE). will carry the conference LIVE beginning at 9 a.m.

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

KPMG, a global auditing firm, began work on the audit 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.

Shortly before leaving office, ex-Mayor Mark Mallory and the last City Council – which were pro-streetcar – stated it would cost between $34.6 million and $51.6 million to stop the project.

Staffers said the cost for completing the project was between $52 million and $74 million.

Newly elected Mayor John Cranley and some council members are skeptical about the estimates.

Streetcar supporters are angry the audit won’t include an analysis of the project’s return on investment. 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.

A pro-streetcar group kicked off its effort Tuesday night to place a charter amendment on the ballot that would force City Council to continue the project, if approved by voters.

A training session for petition circulators was held at an Over-the-Rhine church on the proposed streetcar route. About 500 petitions were given to volunteers, so they can collect signatures in the next few days.

“Come snow, cold temperatures, rain, sleet, we are not giving up” said Ryan Messer, an Over-the-Rhine resident who is leading the effort.

Noting about $32 million has been spent on construction so far, Messer said, “It makes absolutely no sense to lose millions of dollars already invested in this infrastructure project that will go to waste and have nothing to show for it.”

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 is by 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.

Flynn wants a private fundraising effort to pay for some of the cost, and has offered to chip in.

"We have enough strains on the city budget as it is," he said.

The charter amendment would be the third rail-related vote before Cincinnati voters in four years, although the first directly related to the streetcar.

In November 2009, voters rejected a charter amendment that would’ve required a public vote before taxpayer money was used for any rail-related project within Cincinnati. It was rejected 56-44 percent.

In November 2011, voters rejected a charter amendment that would’ve prohibited city officials from spending money on anything related to preparing any type of passenger rail transit through Dec. 31, 2020. It was rejected 52-48 percent.

Paul DeMarco, an attorney for streetcar supporters, sent a letter Monday to Cranley about the amendment.

“If, in the near term, a majority of council votes to lift the pause and resume construction, we ask that you accept their judgment and not veto their action,” DeMarco’s letter stated.

“No matter where any of us stands on the streetcar issue, all of us should agree that Cincinnati voters have the ultimate right to decide it by means of an up-or-down vote on our charter amendment,” the letter added.


has said he supports letting voters decide on the project at the ballot, but doesn’t want to continue spending money on the streetcar until that happens.

Cranley campaigned for mayor by promising to cancel the streetcar. Some pundits have suggested an affirmative vote on an amendment would allow the project to proceed without the mayor being viewed as flip-flopping.

Jay Kincaid, Cranley’s chief of staff, disputed the speculation.

“John campaigned against this because he truly believes it’s bad for the city,” Kincaid said. “We can’t afford the operating costs going forward, and really we can’t afford the capital cost.”

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.

Councilman Wendell Young, a streetcar supporter, thinks opponents hope that happens.

“It all hinges on whether the funding will be available that long,” Young said, referring to a charter amendment vote.

“I’m not optimistic at all,” Young added. “But I truly hope if (federal officials) see there’s an effort to save it, they will wait.”

Some streetcar supporters have said the project’s suspension would put 150-200 construction workers out of their jobs just before Christmas.

A construction industry trade group said the numbers are exaggerated.

John Morris, president of Associated Builders and Contractors, said there is a shortage of skilled construction workers. Many – if not all – of the displaced workers probably will be shifted to other projects, he said.

“Any time a project is canceled, a layoff is likely,” Morris said. “The question is, how long will the layoff last?

“Every company has a backlog of projects,” he added. “I don’t think they will be laid off for long. Our industry definitely needs skilled workers.”

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