Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cincinnati streetcar may yet survive

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A newly formed City Council, led by a newly elected, anti-rail mayor, still plans to obstruct or terminate Cincinnati's initial streetcar line, now under construction, upon taking office Dec. 1, 2013. But the anti-rail forces face some serious political and fiscal obstacles in the attempt.

Cincinnati voters on Nov. 5, 2013 elected as mayor John Cranley, who vowed to stop the project and redirect funds to other projected deemed more worthy.

Work on the 4.4-mile, $133 million project began last October after enduring years of attacks from Ohio state officials, suburban opponents, and critics of the project within the city itself, including Cranley, who made killing the project a campaign issue based largely on fiscal responsibility.

But on Monday, Nov. 25, Federal Transit Administration Chief Counsel Dorval Carter said that if Cincinnati were to terminate the project, the city would lose $40.9 million in federal grants. An additional $4 million in federal funds could be transferred to the state government for other purposes, Carter allowed. Even a delay of the project for re-evalution could jeopardize the federal funds, Carter asserted. As of Nov. 26, Cincinnati had spent an estimated $33 million as construction continued prior to Cranley's swearing in as mayor on Dec. 1.

Federal support for the project, including vocal endorsement from former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, had counteracted some of the regional anti-rail obstruction efforts during 2013, as contracts were issued and a notice to proceed was given in July.

As Thanksgiving approached, streetcar proponents said one council member-elect, who also ran against the streetcar proposal, was indicating he would vote to allow the project's continuation, based on financial realities and the ongoing construction.

Streetcar advocates said one more such vote would result in a 5-to-4 outcome protecting the streetcar's implementation. Mayor Cranley would not vote on the matter, though he does set the council's agenda, advocates explained to Railway Age.

In an editorial Tuesday, Nov. 26, the Cincinnati Enquirer, also a persistent critic of the streetcar, nonetheless said the project should proceed based on fiscal realities, saying, "We believe the benefits of finishing it do outweigh the costs of cancellation, and we urge City Council – which ultimately holds the power in this situation – to support its completion."

"The Enquirer is a morning paper, and it is extremely rare for it to publish an editorial in the late afternoon," one key pro-rail supporter told Railway Age. " They obviously wanted to get this message out before Cincinnatians started leaving for the [Thanksgiving] holiday."