CINCINNATI — As City Council works to reopen the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar to passenger service by Wednesday, it remained unclear Monday whether it would be free to ride -- as a super-majority of council proposed and approved during budget negotiations earlier this year.
With Council in recess for most of July and August, a budget ordinance that would maintain streetcar service without charging fares has lingered in a cloud of uncertainty due to multiple funding plans facing mayoral vetoes that can only be revisited at the next regularly-scheduled meeting.
In an email to City Council, Cranley told lawmakers Monday he would introduce an ordinance to maintain streetcar fares but use that revenue to fund "enhanced police visibility in places like Grant Park, and other neighborhoods that have been the sites of multiple shootings."
In the email, Cranley also wrote, "As you know, shootings are unacceptably high. This is our highest priority and all efforts should be made to enhance safety."
Cranley's proposal comes after the painstaking process of filling an unprecedented budget gap -- brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic slowdown -- while the city also faces what could become the worst year of gun violence in Cincinnati on record and as calls for reducing and restructuring the police budget are reaching a fever pitch.
Cranley initially proposed keeping the streetcar closed to passenger service for the 2020-2021 fiscal year and reallocating that money to other services in light of a massive, looming budget deficit. Cranley's plan would have kept vehicles running a certain number of minutes a day, but purely for maintenance and upkeep purposes: not to carry passengers. Multiple members of council expressed concern over running what became known as the "zombie streetcar," which still would have cost more than $3 million.
In response, City Council initially passed a plan to use money from a portion of the city earnings tax that -- as of Oct. 1 -- will no longer go toward Cincinnati Metro bus service. After Cranley vetoed that plan, City Council passed an alternative that would fund streetcar passenger service via the Over-the-Rhine tax increment financing (TIF) fund.
At its Aug. 5 meeting, City Council overrode Cranley's initial veto. During that same meeting, the mayor then vetoed the alternative plan to use the OTR TIF fund minutes after the council approved it. It remains unclear which of the two streetcar funding models will survive the legislative process and how Cranley's proposal could complicate either plan.
In an Aug. 14 memo, acting-City Manager Paula Boggs Muething explained that the streetcar going fare-free not only requires an act of City Council but also a public hearing, contract renegotiations and other bureaucratic steps before fare can be eliminated.
There's also the cost of collecting fares to consider. The city administration has estimated the cost to collect the fares -- which includes printing the passes, powering and maintaining the ticket vending machines, and providing enforcement officers to check for passengers' tickets -- could total nearly 80% of the expected overall fare revenue. With ridership levels expected to remain low due to the ongoing pandemic, it also remains unclear how much money could be recovered from streetcar fare revenue collection going forward.
According to a May 31, 2019 memo from then-City Manager Patrick Duhaney, the expected net revenue from streetcar fare collection for fiscal year 2020 -- minus the cost to collect those fares -- would fall just north of $70,000. Those were pre-pandemic estimates.
Cranley's email did not specify which neighborhoods -- beyond Grant Park, as an example -- would receive increased police presence or to what degree.
City Council will convene a special meeting Tuesday of the Law and Public Safety Committee to consider Cranley's proposal as well as other legislation that could expedite the process for fare elimination.
Here is the full text of Cranley's email to City Council members:
Dear City Council,
As you know, shootings are unacceptably high.
This is our highest priority and all efforts should be made to enhance safety.
Since City Council adopted a streetcar budget that assumes no fare revenue, but fares are still scheduled to be collected, I believe we should dedicate streetcar fares to enhanced police visibility in places like Grant Park, and other neighborhoods that have been the sites of multiple shootings.
I am introducing an ordinance to dedicate streetcar fares to crime fighting in Law and Public Safety meeting tomorrow morning.
I hope you will all support this effort. There is no higher priority.
WCPO will update this story.