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Report: City taking over streetcar operations would be 'expensive and time-consuming'

Posted: 7:12 PM, Nov 20, 2018
Updated: 2018-11-21 17:08:24Z

CINCINNATI -- Amid the operational woes that have continued to plague the streetcar since its launch two years ago, city officials said it would be "expensive and time-consuming" for the city to take over full control of streetcar operations from the transit authority.

In a report to City Council, Acting City Manager Patrick Duhaney outlined the multiple steps that taking over streetcar operations would entail, including:

  • renegotiating the Operations and Maintenance Intergovernmental Agreement -- often referred to as the "OMIGA" -- between the city and the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority
  • hiring or contracting up to six new employees to manage the streetcar's relationship with the Federal Transit Administration, which provides the system some funding
  • potentially hire more legal staff to manage new contract negotiations and any potential arbitration that could arise in the future

Under its current structure, the city owns the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar, and SORTA oversees operations on the city's behalf. SORTA has a contract with transit service provider Transdev to carry out those operations.

This structure requires one contract between the city and SORTA -- that's the OMIGA -- and a separate contract between SORTA and Transdev. Were the city to take over operations, it would have to renegotiate a new contract of its own with Transdev, Duhaney said.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Cincinnati's streetcar

Duhaney said that would involve a "lengthy process of evaluating existing SORTA contracts and assigning them to the city, where possible."

Duhaney also pointed to SORTA staff members' expertise when dealing with the FTA, a federal agency that maintains a host of requirements for transit systems relying on federal funding.

"FTA grantee requirements are extensive and require specialized knowledge of transit laws," Duhaney wrote in the report. "As a transit agency that relies on federal transit funding, SORTA’s in-house staff, its reporting processes, and its finances have been built for the purpose of complying with FTA grantee requirements."

If the city were to take control of streetcar operations, Duhaney said his administration would recommend maintaining a contract with SORTA to help manage FTA requirements.

Duhaney's report would not hazard to estimate the cost of these and the other necessary actions such a shift in management would require.

"The city requires the assistance of a rail expert to fully understand the scope of the transfer of operating authority but is currently taking steps to acquire this expertise," Duhaney said.

The streetcar's management structure came into question earlier this year, when city leaders became frustrated by a growing list of streetcar problems with no clear individual to hold accountable.

Assistant City Manager John Juech recommended that the system needed "one neck to choke."

Not long after, City Councilman Greg Landsman -- who heads up the council's Major Projects and Smart Government Committee -- recommended the city hire a "streetcar CEO," who would answer to the city administration and the transit agency and have the support of a small nonprofit organization.

City Council approved that plan as part of its 2019 budget negotiations in June.

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman originally requested Duhaney's report in a motion filed June 27, 2018, asking the city administration to "evaluate options for removing the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) from its role as operator of the city's streetcar system."

Duhaney's report was added to City Council's calendar for consideration during the next Major Projects and Smart Government Committee meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 27.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter ( @pat_laFleur ) and on Facebook.