City Council Approves $17.4M in Additional Funding for the Cincinnati Streetcar

City Council’s Budget & Finance Committee, which is made up of the full nine-member council, approved two Cincinnati Streetcar-related measures this afternoon at City Hall.

The first was a motion put forth by Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (C) that directed Mayor Mark Mallory’s (D) administration to provide City Council with an updated timeline and schedule, performance measures, operating plan, assessment of project staffing and personnel, progress reports, and develop a “sustainable funding” plan for the Uptown Connector and Uptown Circulator projects planned to follow.

Cincinnati Streetcar

This measure passed 5-3 with P.G. Sittenfeld (D), Christopher Smitherman (I), and Charlie Winburn (R) voting in opposition. The recently appointed Pamela Thomas (D) abstained from voting on the measure.

“Recent funding challenges have highlighted the need for accountability and greater transparency in this major public infrastructure investment,” the motion read. “City Council must take a greater oversight role to instill public confidence in the management of the project.”

The second item voted upon was to allocate an additional $17.4 million to the first phase of the streetcar project, following an additional $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation through its TIGER program last week.

The additional funding will come from City Manager Milton Dohoney’s recommended plan issued in April. This plan includes the reprogramming of $6.5 million from casino area infrastructure, delaying the contribution of $5.4 million to Music Hall capital funds, reprogramming $400,000 from traffic signal replacement and $500,000 from water main relocation/replacement funds, and issuing $4.6 million in new capital debt.

This measure passed 5-4 with Sittenfeld, Smitherman and Winburn once again voting in opposition, but with Thomas then joining them.

Thomas was considered a swing vote on these issues due to her husband’s pro-streetcar position, who previously filled her seat on council. She spoke to her original support for the streetcar project when it included the Uptown Connector in its first phase, but that her support went away from Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) pulled $52 million from the project.

The vote will not become official until City Council votes on the ordinance this Wednesday at its full session, but it is expected that the same nine-member body will vote as they did today.

  • Mark Christol

    I guess it’s Pamula – no idea how it’s pronounced. I know how it should be pronounced….

  • Eric

    The highlight of the hearing was Smitherman asking if the streetcar would run a deficit then refusing to be “lectured” about transit projects across the country. Who does this guy work for?

  • Eric

    The highlight of the meeting was Smitherman asking if the streetcar would run a deficit then refusing to be “lectured” on transit across the U.S. Who does this guy work for?

    • matimal

      He works entirely for himself. He is a textbook sociopath who does nothing he doesn’t see in his personal and direct material self-interest.

    • What I hear you asking is who does he answer to. That’s easy, he sold his sole to the anti-city conservatives to get elected to council. He sure isn’t speaking for city residents.

  • TimSchirmang

    …“Recent funding challenges have highlighted the need for accountability
    and greater transparency in this major public infrastructure
    investment,” the motion read. “City Council must take a greater
    oversight role to instill public confidence in the management of the

    This is one point of frustration for those opposed to the streetcar or at least interested in an objective reassessment of the plan. Right out the gate we have a statistically significant error in budget estimate, and the response from council is a motion essentially stating “Gee, this is a big complicated project, we should make sure we know what’s going on.” All views on the streetcar itself aside, this sentiment should be concerning.

    Another point, and perhaps this ties into the Smitherman comment below, is that council has done a poor job defending the streetcar. For those genuinely interested in looking at the economics, some of the information coming from council is so silly that it strips council of all credibility. Example, in the recent presentation to the council budget committee proponents argue that terminating the streetcar would be a waste of $72M. Putting aside the concept of sunk costs, this figure is way off the mark because more than half of it ($38M) is unspent federal grant money that would have to be returned if the project was terminated. Returning unspent money is not a cost to the city in any way shape or form.

    • When I hear someone criticize the streetcar project, I often try to engage them in conversation to find out why. I’ve found that there are two types of opponents.

      The first group consists of people who simply don’t know the details of the project. They don’t know where the streetcar goes, and they aren’t even familiar with how much downtown has been revitalized in recent years. They don’t know that streetcars have been successful in other U.S. cities and that streetcars can be one part of a multi-modal system that also contains buses, light rail, and commuter rail. Most of these people, once you spend 5 minutes explaining the idea to them, will come around to supporting the project. Or, at the very least, they will say that the city should move forward with the plan and deal with the consequences since we’re already so far in.

      The second group consists of people that simply will not listen to anything you are saying. They are convinced that the city is dying, that no one will ride a streetcar, and that it’s a waste of money. They don’t understand the difference between the capital budget and the operating budget, so they’re convinced that the streetcar is taking money away from police and fire (which is simply not true). They buy into everything that Bill Cunningham and the Enquirer tell them about the project, which usually falls somewhere between intentionally misleading and a flat-out lie.

      The city definitely should be doing a better job reaching out to the people in the first group. But people in the second group will never even judge the project based on the facts — they already have their mind made up before they learn about it.

    • TimSchirmang

      I am totally with you on the second group. It’s more frustrating to talk with someone you tend to agree with if their reasoning is junk or absent than it is to talk with someone who holds an opposing but reasoned position.

      The first group has been abandoned in the discussion because of an absence of an organized and objective opposition. Like you say, most of the vocal opposition is just yelling non-substantive gibberish. Those that have invested the time to learn the details and still formulate skepticism or disagreement with the plan are now put into the ‘Slitherman’ bin by default.

    • Mark Christol

      Most of the opponents I know generally say “it’s stupid” and they are done. They are, like you said, usually ignorant of details.
      The city HAS done a lousy job of communicating but the media is full on promoting opponents so it’s an uphill battle. It’s also a difficult sale because it is multi faceted.

    • Which type of ‘opponent’ then am I? Or perhaps I don’t neatly enough fall into the class of ‘opponents’, nullifying my pointed question.

      I know a handful of very well informed people, many of them local urban planners, who aren’t perhaps ‘opposed’ but who are very iffy on the whole thing, especially now that it’s been amputated down to a tiny expensive loop.

      Don’t be too quick to create a dichotomy that places you in opposition to simple pessimist-fools alone!

      But VERY generally, I agree. Those groups often exist for any project.

    • You do realize that this “amputated down”, “tiny expensive loop” is what the first phase of this project originally was, right? The Uptown Connector was only added into the first phase of work later when additional money was available.

      With that said, even this “tiny” loop is larger than any initial phase of a streetcar system built anywhere in North America.

    • Perhaps a comment on how expensive streetcars are compared to other modes? But don’t set your sights so low! I bet there have been much larger streetcar routes built all at once within the last century or two. And certainly things like the Big Dig(perhaps a bad example) have happened very recently. There’s no good reason this couldn’t be equally huge 🙂

      But a fair point! I’m forgetting my history I think. Gosh these things drag on long.
      Still, I think we all got most excited when…I guess that was the extension funded by the DOT that got pulled by Kasich?

    • Projects like the Big Dig have dedicated funding sources and aren’t typically voted on, so it’s a completely different ballgame. Transit extensions can sometimes be larger, but you need that first phase to demonstrate local commitment.

      With regards to cost, streetcars are actually cheaper than most other options. Buses can be cheaper, but not something like Cleveland’s Healthline though.

    • Does it seem like good policy to give away a $40M investment in your city?

      The $400M federal investment Ohio gave away is now opening train stations and improving speeds of intercity trains in Michigan and Illinois – both of whom now have trains operating at 110mph over certain segments.

    • Maybe someday we’ll have that kind of connectivity between Ohio cities. At least I hope so.

    • TimSchirmang

      Whether it is good policy is completely irrelevant. Cincinnati is not in the business of winning federal grant money. That’s not on the scorecard of a successful city.

    • Are you suggesting Cincinnati bury its head in the sand and ignore investments from the federal government, while the rest of its peers gladly accept these investments?

    • If all your friends jumped off a bridge…

      Such a complex subject as the paradoxical interests created by economically competing cities in a united federation of states needs a good justification not just an acceptance and reaffirmation of what is.

      I guess it depends on the scope of one’s perspective.

    • I’m not sure when accepting an outside contribution/investment became akin to jumping off bridges.

      At some point things need to be funded. Money doesn’t just grow on trees and infrastructure costs money. Local governments only generate so much revenue. State governments can generate more, but they tend to share it more broadly.

      The Federal government, meanwhile, is the only one of the three that can (and is encouraged to) carry debt. Economists largely view debt at the Federal level to be a good thing because it is a sign of investment in the country, and thus boosting GDP, which reduces annual deficits and reins in debt.

      The other option is to wait around on a private source to come in and fund your piece of public infrastructure. This is just now starting to gain interest in the form of public-private partnerships, but the money is just collected from the citizens in a different manner.

    • I’m only making fun of the reasoning. I agree with with conclusion 🙂

    • TimSchirmang

      I’m saying Cincinnati’s policy on whether to accept, reject or return money is not relevant to analyzing the cost of ending the streetcar project.

      You and a buddy are planning to drive to Chicago. You will drive and buddy offers $20 bucks toward gas. The day before you leave, you reconsider going. Does buddy’s offer to throw 20 bucks toward gas enter your decision? It shouldn’t, unless he’s already paid you and you’re willing to skip the trip and spend his 20 elsewhere, aka steal it. Deciding not to go doesn’t cost you the 20 bucks.

      Same goes for the $38M in grant money in deciding whether to go forward. Yet it was presented as more than 50% of that cost to city council.

    • You seem to be nitpicking the city’s figure for “the cost of canceling the project” and missing the larger point.

      Everyone pays federal taxes, and our local and state politicians should be fighting to get federal funding for projects that benefit us. Instead, Steve Chabot and John Kasich have explicitly rejected federal funding for the streetcar project. Ohioans aren’t “saving” that money, we are just paying for a streetcar to be built in some other city outside of Ohio. We paid in to the system and got nothing back.

      And unlike what some of our politicians seem to think, we are not allowed to redirect federal funding to another project of our choosing. Cranley incorrectly believes that we can redirect federal streetcar funding to an I-71 interchange, much like Kasich thought we could redirect federal 3C passenger rail funding to freight railroads.

    • His original (larger) point was that misleading or indefensible information was being used to defend the project and that that was an example of the City and City Council losing public credibility on the issue.

      The above is a bad use of figures and it undermines the City’s credibility, illustrating an important reason why people would doubt the project is a good one. Don’t drag the argument in circles.

    • I guess I’m missing the larger point of how any of this is different from any other construction project.

      Take the politics and personal preferences out of the equation and you can begin to see that this project is progressing the same way virtually all engineering/construction projects progress.

    • TimSchirmang

      Thanks Nate, the reply to Travis was spot on. Randy, I am missing the larger and smaller points of your comment. Are you talking about public projects, private projects, or both?

      To reiterate what Nate said, my comments question why council proponents, the mayor, and Manager Dahoney continue to use gibberish data to persuade the others on council and the public to keep going with the project. In the recent presentation to council one of the main arguments for continuing was the sentiment that too much has been spent already to stop now. To paraphrase their position: ‘We’re already in this for $72M, we can get a streetcar for $130M or get bupkis for $72M’.

      Telling folks ‘you’re more than halfway, let’s finish this!’ is pretty persuasive. Slight problem, it’s not true. The reality, if Travis let’s me nitpick here for a second, is that the city has only spent a fraction of this. Walking away from the streetcar project is not the fiscal end of the world that the presentation made it out to be. It’s really disheartening when an immediate budget overrun equals what you’ve spent to date, so proponents brought out mirrors and a smoke machine.

      Misinformation is not limited to the cost side either. An enormous amount of the economic development that the streetcar is designed to spur has already happened. The Banks, Gateway, Pendleton, and Uptown developments will not go ‘poof’ if the streetcar doesn’t happen. The city could maybe walk away with a huge W, entirely by accident, by objectively reassessing the streetcar and saying ‘gosh, maybe it no longer makes sense to build a non-self-sustaining transportation alternative because the economic impact has already been largely achieved. Let’s be economically savvy and get out while the getting is good.’

      Savvy can’t happen if the analysis is outcome-driven.

    • It would seem like a thoughtlessly selfish policy not to readily consider the possibility of returning unwanted money.

    • Who said it was unwanted money? Certainly not the voters of Cincinnati (twice), the elected City Council (countless times), the regional transit authority, or the city administration.

    • It would be unwanted if the city decided the costs of the project were too high to continue pursuing it.

      Also, let’s not get confused here: If those ballot issues had been a vote for or against the streetcar plan, either as proposed or as it stands now, I would have voted differently. They were much more broadly worded.

    • Sure, but the majority of the voters viewed each of those ballot issues as a vote for or against the streetcar project. In fact, that’s how the opponents who put it on the ballot sold it to the voting populace.

  • I found it interesting that Thomas said she was for the streetcar when it was bigger and more expensive but now that it is smaller and less expensive she is against it.
    The opponents say this over and over again, they are all for it but its either too big or too small.

    • Her statement seemed really odd to me as well. The streetcar project has to start somewhere, and I’d much rather have a smaller system than nothing at all happening.