Cincinnati streetcar groundbreaking set for Feb. 17

US Transportation Secretary to attend

CINCINNATI - After years of planning, construction officially begins at 1:00 p.m. February 17th on Cincinnati's controversial streetcar project.

Mayor Mark Mallory announced Friday that's when the groundbreaking gala will occur at Memorial Hall on Elm Street in The Over-the-Rhine.

United States Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will be the keynote speaker.

The news came at the end of a special meeting of Cincinnati City Council to discuss the $110 million project. The meeting was called by councilmembers Charles Winburn and Christopher Smitherman, who both oppose the project.

The ceremony is going forward even though the city and Duke Energy remain at an impasse on the cost of relocating or replacing utility lines and safety concerns.

However, Mayor Mallory told councilmembers he's now going to get personally involved in the negotiations.

"We're at the point where leader-to-leader we need to get into a room and work out this disagreement," he said.

Duke Energy estimates the cost of moving its gas, electric, chilled water and fiber lines at $18.7 million and believes the city, not its ratepayers, should pick up the cost.

City Manager Milton Dohoney, Jr., said he believes $6 million is a more accurate figure.

The safety question is how far Duke's lines should be moved to allow for worker safety during maintenance operations.

Duke wants an eight-foot distance from a moving streetcar, but the city maintains that three-feet is adequate.

"This project will move forward. The lines have to be moved," the Mayor stated. "So, I am reaching out my hand in the spirit of cooperation, collaboration, consensus building and friendship in an effort to resolve this issue.

Johnna Reeder, Duke's Vice-President of Community Relations and Economic Development, said the company was encouraged by the Mayor's comments.

"I'm excited to hear that the groundbreaking is in less than seven days, so I assume that the Mayor is going to find some quick resolution on a safety issue and a cost issue," she said.

City Manager Milton Dohoney, Jr., said the city has the right to proceed with the groundbreaking, even though negotiations with Duke are not finished. He said that's because the city owns the streets.

Dohoney compared it to The Banks, where the first dirt was turned long before all the contracts for the project were finalized.

"As the project moved forward, different pieces fell into place," he said. "But, it was not all resolved at the time 20-some people put hats on and picked up shovels down at the waterfront."

Smitherman and Winburn asked the only questions during the 50-minute council meeting. Their topic was project funding.

The City Manager said $10 million has been set aside for utility relocation -- $6 million for Duke, $3 million for the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) and $1 million split between Cincinnati Bell and Time Warner Cable.

Smitherman wanted to know if Duke ratepayers would ever have to share in the streetcar costs.

Dohoney replied that there's nothing in any documents he's seen that mentions ratepayers.

Then, Smitherman asked for a specific cost figure for the project.

"It's $110,400, 000," Dohoney said.

The Manager acknowledged that if costs go over that amount, the administration would have to come back to council for approval.

Neither Smitherman nor Winburn left the meeting satisfied.

"It's time right now to pull the plug on the streetcar," said Winburn. "It's going to belly-up down the road. The taxpayers are going to have to foot the bill."

"I'm unclear how the Mayor can move forward with an impasse with Duke. That's number one," Smitherman said. "Number two, I don't think anyone heard what the clear costs are going to be to build the streetcar."

Despite those concerns, the groundbreaking will occur. There's no timetable set for the resumption of talks with Duke.

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