City Council approves 'streetcar divorce,' assuming oversight from transit authority

The transition will take effect Jan. 1, 2020
Posted at 5:00 PM, Dec 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-12 18:23:14-05

CINCINNATI — City officials took the final step Wednesday afternoon to transition management of the streetcar's operations from the transit authority to City Hall.

The culmination of an idea first proposed more than a year ago, the so-called "streetcar divorce" will take effect at midnight, Jan. 1, 2020 now that both the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Board of Trustees and Cincinnati City Council have each taken action to remove SORTA from its role in overseeing the Cincinnati Bell Connector's maintenance and operation.

City Council approved the ordinance with an 8-to-1 vote. Councilman Chris Seelbach cast the lone "no" vote. The SORTA Board approved its resolution to proceed in November with a 12-to-1 vote; trustee Allen Freeman cast the lone "no" vote on the transit board.

But what does that mean exactly, and why make the transition in the first place?

What are the terms?

Under its current operations structure, the city owns the streetcar, Transdev operates it, and SORTA oversees Transdev's fulfillment of its duties. The mutual termination agreement that City Council approved Wednesday authorizes the city to take over SORTA's role in overseeing Transdev's management and operation of the streetcar. Per the agreement's terms, the city will take over SORTA's contract with Transdev at 11:59 p.m., Dec. 31, 2019.

The agreement will dissolve two other agreements the city previously signed with the transit agency in 2011 and 2015, stipulating SORTA's role in overseeing the streetcar's management on the city's behalf.

"The city of Cincinnati will be a transit agency starting January 1st," said the city's Deputy Director of Streetcar Services, Travis Jeric, Tuesday at Council's Major Projects and Smart Government Committee meeting.

The transition hasn't come without cost to the city, though: In August, City Manager Patrick Duhaney warned City Council that assuming SORTA's responsibilities over the streetcar could cost as much as $550,000. Those costs will cover additional staffing and training required for the city administration staff in assuming direct transit management responsibilities.

The majority of that money will come out of the streetcar's operating fund, while a small portion would come out of the streetcar's capital budget.

Here is the mutual termination agreement, approved for adoption Wednesday:

City, SORTA Streetcar Mutual Termination Agreement by WCPO Web Team on Scribd

Still remaining in Jeric's transition plan is renegotiating existing grant agreements with the Federal Transit Administration, which Jeric said in August he hopes to complete by March 2020.

Why dump SORTA from the streetcar equation?

In addition to persistent technical and operational problems, city officials last year began indicating that the streetcar's three-party management structure might be too convoluted. In explaining the streetcar's ongoing struggles to remain on time and attract higher ridership, Assistant City Administrator John Juech said in 2018 that City Council needed "one neck to choke" -- referring to the fact that there was no clear individual or body to hold responsible for the streetcar's shortcomings.

Beyond logistical reasons, transit advocates this year began advocating for SORTA to abdicate its streetcar oversight as plans for a 2020 transit sales tax campaign began to take shape. Mayor John Cranley, multiple members of the council and the SORTA board, along with other community leaders began extolling the plan as necessary if the Cincinnati Metro bus system ever were to stand a chance of benefiting from a Hamilton County-wide sales tax levy, due to the transit authority's ongoing affiliation with the streetcar.

In addition to removing itself from streetcar operations, the transit board approved this week the specific ballot language it will present to Hamilton County voters next spring, including a stipulation that "None of the levy money shall be used for the Cincinnati Streetcar."

The transit board will seek a 0.8 percent increase to the county's sales tax to fund Cincinnati Metro operations and capital spending, as well as road and bridge improvements throughout the county that would benefit Cincinnati Metro bus service. That measure will appear on Hamilton County ballots during Ohio's primary election on March 17.