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City Council motion floats idea of independent, nonprofit streetcar authority

Streetcar strikes Metro bus downtown
Posted at 6:10 PM, Sep 09, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-09 19:24:33-04

CINCINNATI — At least two members of City Council want the city administration to explore the feasibility of establishing a new transit authority that would deal exclusively with the streetcar.

In a motion filed Monday with the city clerk, Councilman Jeff Pastor asked the administration to report on establishing a Cincinnati Street Railway Authority, "a not-for-profit organization for the purpose of managing, operating and maintaining the city's streetcar system."

Councilman Greg Landsman also signed the motion. Landsman's Major Projects and Smart Government Committee oversees streetcar matters on behalf of the city, which owns the streetcar and all its assets. Landsman originally proposed restructuring the streetcar's management last year, calling for an executive director and a nonprofit board that would oversee the system.

The motion also doubles down on previous proposals to remove the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority from the current streetcar management structure. Today, SORTA oversees the streetcar management and operations contract on the city's behalf.

Deputy Director of Streetcar Services Travis Jeric reported to City Council last week that it would cost more than $550,000 to transition streetcar oversight from SORTA to the city, an expense Landsman and others worried might be misspent, especially if such a nonprofit streetcar authority were established later.

"If at some point there is a nonprofit board, similar to what exists in Kansas City, and it was to be transitioned over to that nonprofit board, would we have to do all of this again?" Landsman asked Jeric during a committee meeting last week.

IN-DEPTH: Kansas City's streetcar is about to expand. Why isn't Cincinnati's?

Unlike Cincinnati's streetcar, Kansas City's urban rail connector system operates under the auspices of the KC Streetcar Transit Authority, which works in concert with the city government to maintain streetcar business.

In response to Landsman's question, Jeric said it's possible that going through with the proposed streetcar transition plan and then transferring to a nonprofit streetcar authority could mean some backtracking.

"The direct answer is that, yes a lot of this would have to be done again… maybe not all," Jeric said. "It depends on the model that we would move towards. Of course, a lot of variables there."

During a Budget and Finance Committee meeting Monday, Landsman asked that an ordinance allocating the necessary funds to fund the streetcar transition be held for consideration at least one week.

"There are questions that I still have, particularly regarding the ongoing costs (of the transition plan)," Landsman said.

Jeric also explained that part of the cost associated with transitioning streetcar oversight to the city is that "(t)he city is not a transit agency."

"There is a lot of training to be done to turn the city into essentially a transit agency," he continued. "There are a lot of specific FTA requirements that need specific training."

In addition to bringing "accountability" — as Landsman called it — for the streetcar in-house to City Hall, he also feels removing SORTA from any association with the Cincinnati Bell Connector will increase the chances of an anticipated ballot measure next year that would ask Hamilton County voters to raise the sales tax to boost Metro bus service. In addition to overseeing streetcar operations, SORTA owns and operates Cincinnati Metro.

"I strongly believe that there needs to be accountability here in this building for what happens moving forward with the streetcar," Landsman said last week. "I also think that investing in our bus system and getting a transit levy passed next March next year is one of the most important things we’ll do. And assuring folks that this has been transitioned and that no dollars associated with the transit levy will go anywhere near the streetcar I think is important."

After being filed with the city clerk, the motion now goes to Mayor John Cranley to assign to a committee for consideration.