Cranley: Time for Cincinnati to stop streetcar project

Mayoral candidate says high bids are warning

CINCINNATI - With construction bids for Cincinnati's planned streetcar system coming in significantly higher than what was budgeted, one of the candidates running for mayor said it's time to pull the plug on the project.

John Cranley, a Democratic mayoral candidate, said the streetcar's rising costs make it a bad investment for taxpayers.

Bids to install the tracks and build the stations for the system were $26 million to $43 million higher than estimated, city officials revealed this week.

City officials estimated the cost would be about $44.6 million. The bids ranged from $70.9 million to $87.5 million.

The added expense could push the project's cost – variously estimated at $110 million to $125 million – to $130 million or more.

"This is becoming an enormous boondoggle," Cranley said. "It's time to say enough is enough and stop it."

Cranley, an ex-city councilman, held a news conference Thursday morning at Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine. The park will be one of the stops on the streetcar system.

He aimed his comments at his likely opponent in this fall's mayoral contest, current Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls. Mayor Mark Mallory cannot run again due to term limits.

Qualls supports the streetcar project, saying it will spur redevelopment of vacant and dilapidated properties along its route, as a similar project has done in Portland, Ore.

Cincinnati's planned 3.6-mile looped system would stretch from the riverfront through downtown and north to Over-the-Rhine, ending near Findlay Market.

Streetcar projects also are under construction in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Tucson, Ariz.

"We know she likes the project, but at what point do we say the cost is getting too high," Cranley said. "Is she literally going to take money from the neighborhoods or raise property taxes to pay for this?"

Jens Sutmoller, Qualls' campaign manager, said Cranley's criticism of Qualls "reflects his desperation."

Money for the project comes from various local, regional and federal sources.

About $25 million comes from the Federal Transportation Administration; $4 million comes from a grant by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments; $6.5 million comes from Duke Energy; and $64 million will come from construction bonds issued by the city.

In September, city officials awarded a $20.5 million contract to CAF USA to build five streetcars for the system.

Cranley called the action "morally wrong," and said it gave leverage to contractors bidding to build other parts of the system.

"They recklessly bought streetcars two years before they intend to use them," Cranley said. "Now the contractors have the leverage that the city has to go forward with the project."

Instead, Cranley believes the city should accept the $20 million loss and focus its economic development resources on other projects. Noting that the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) has helped spark the construction of new apartments, condos and shops in downtown and Over-the-Rhine, he prefers that approach be expanded.

"Why don't we just do that? Why don't we just continue the momentum we have with 3CDC," he asked.

Sutmoller declined to address any issues directly connected to the streetcar. He said they should be asked of City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr., not Qualls.

"For the questions on the streetcar, your best response will come from the city manager and administration," he said.

Referring to various comments that Cranley has made about Qualls, he added, "Mr. Cranley's kitchen sink approach to attacking Vice Mayor Qualls reflects his desperation and his pattern of playing fast and loose with the facts. It is this behavior on Mr. Cranley's part that gives politics a bad name."

Streetcar supporters noted that studies have shown the local streetcar system would spark nearly $1.4 billion in new development along its route.

That means it would produce – when adjusted in today's value — up to $2.70 in economic activity for every $1 invested.

Cincinnati voters have twice defeated initiatives to stop the project.

In November 2011, voters rejected a charter amendment that would have prohibited city officials from spending money to prepare for any type of passenger rail transit through 2020. It was rejected 52-48 percent.

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

But Cranley said a majority of Cincinnatians prefers other, broader-based rail projects – like commuter rail to suburbs – and not the more limited streetcar project.

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