Cincinnati streetcar survives political turmoil

Written by Douglas John Bowen

Construction on Cincinnati's streetcar project will resume following weeks of political posturing and gamesmanship culminating Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in a decision to let the project continue.

Newly elected Mayor John Cranley, who took office Dec. 1, had vowed to scuttle the project, even after an independent analysis showed that halting construction would save little if any funds, and despite insistence from the Federal Transit Administration that federal funds would have to be returned, and could not be diverted to other (road) projects.

Cranley was one of several mayors meeting with President Obama in Washington, D.C. earlier this week. One source told Railway Age that Cranley did not discuss the project with the President, but did do so with FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff, who repeated FTA’s assertion that $40.9 million in federal funds targeted toward the project must either be used, or returned, and could not be diverted.

In an editorial Wednesday, Dec. 18, the Cincinnati Enquirer, a persistent critic of the $133 million streetcar project, nonetheless noted the “even if the project was halted today, the city will have already spent $34 million and will need to spend another $16 million to $46 million to close it out and honor its contracts. So canceling it today would mean spending a total of $50 million to $80 million in taxpayer dollars – for nothing.”

Early Thursday, a City Council Committee voted 5-to-0, with three abstentions, to let the project advance, with Mayor Crowley reiterating his intent to veto any such approval. Such a veto would have required a 6-to-3 override vote, which pro-rail advocates early on said was an uncertain prospect but which appears to have solidified as a real likelihood within the City Council by midday Thursday.That may have prompted Cranley to reconsider his position, which he announced early Thursday afternoon. The City Council then in fact voted 6-to-3 to approve restarting the project.

Throughout December, pro-streetcar forces advanced a petition drive to put the streetcar issue to the voters for approval – for a third time – if the project was cancelled, and they reported earlier this week that they had registered numbers in support of the vote far in excess of the minimum required.

Councilman Kevin Flynn secured $9 million more in private sector contributions to the operating costs, in order to meet one of Mayor Cranley’s late stipulations for the streetcar’s survival.

Early Thursday afternoon, Cranley acknowledged, “We’re going to have a streetcar,” while re-emphasizing the campaign pledges to add police officers and firefighters and to make sure the streetcar would not jeopardize other services, including bus service.

But earlier in the day Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, a streetcar supporter, said the costs of litigation resulting from the streetcar’s demise might prove “astronomical” and in fact would therefore affect Cincinnati’s operating budget, impacting police, fire, and other municipal services.