After Another Day of Chaos at City Hall, Council Votes to “Pause” Streetcar Project

Today was the day that would show the true colors of those members of council freshly sworn into office. They were faced with a decision of voting to continue and finish construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar project, or voting to pause and essentially cancel the project altogether.

A shifting landscape continued to alter the debate and make the whole vote more intriguing, and thus more revealing. Yesterday a confidential document was leaked, that courts had ordered remain confidential, and showed that city attorneys felt the city might lose its case against Duke Energy for the cost of relocating utilities along the streetcar line. Many suspect the document was leaked by Mayor John Cranley’s (D) administration. Such a legal loss would cost the City the $15 million it currently has set aside in escrow.

On Monday, the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation had offered up private money to fund the independent financial review of the project, which was then matched by an anonymous contribution on Wednesday that would also cover the costs of construction to continue while that study was conducted. Both offers were turned down by Mayor Cranley and the five members of City Council who ultimately voted to pause the project indefinitely.

Cincinnati Streetcar Financial Summary

Acting City Manager Scott Stiles also informed City Council that such an action to “pause” the project would cost the City between $2.6 million to $3.6 million per month due to contractual obligations – a number that exceeds the total amount it costs to merely continue construction activities.

An official vote to continue or cancel the $133 million project is expected to come following the conclusion of the financial review.

Some city officials believe the move will result in the Federal Transit Administration pulling $40 million in unspent money from the project and beginning debt collection on the $5 million already spent by the city – thus increasing the local cost share for city taxpayers. Others believe that the way in which the 11 approved ordinances have been written give the City a limited amount of time before the federal government acts.

During the hearing there were times that both Vice Mayor David Mann (D) and Councilman Kevin Flynn (C) seemed to be conflicted. They had both campaigned on their skepticism of the project, but vowed to carefully review the facts and figures associated with cancelling the project at such an advanced stage. Those promises, however, appear to have been not much more than lip service in order to appease their progressive base of supporters.

What actually happens next is anyone’s guess. A lawsuit has been threatened by a Cincinnati resident and attorney alleging Councilman Christopher Smitherman (I), who was one of the five voting against the streetcar today, has a conflict of interest and therefore has committed wrongdoing by voting or engaging in official discussion on the matter.

Additional legal action may come from citizens trying to block today’s action by council that prohibits citizens from placing the matter on the ballot for a third time. Outside of that, both CAF and Prus appear poised to file lawsuits against the city for breach of contract.

If streetcar supporters are successful at getting the matter put on the ballot, such an issue could be placed before voters as soon as 90 to 120 days following that motion. Although, it is expected that the Federal government could still pull their investment during that time regardless.

Atlanta Streetcar Construction
As politicians continue to bicker over Cincinnati’s $133M streetcar project after six years, Atlanta blazes ahead with construction of its own $69M streetcar project near Centennial Olympic Park. Image provided to UrbanCincy.

What makes the whole matter more startling is the apparent change of heart from the city’s powerful business community. Earlier today, the Business Courier reported that leadership at companies including Procter & Gamble, Frost Brown Todd, CBRE, Otto M. Buding Family Foundation, Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation, Greiwe Development Group, Grandin Properties, Blue Chip Venture, Jack Rouse Associates and Fifth Third Bank all expressed specific interest in either finishing the streetcar project or moving forward with a comprehensive regional rail transit system.

The Cincinnati Enquirer has also changed their position in recent weeks calling on the new mayor and council to finish the project.

All this combined with the change of position by P.G. Sittenfeld (D), who is now in favor of finishing the streetcar project, have seemingly empowered the active pro-streetcar groups causing some to urge for a recall of Mayor Cranley. Recall election or not, streetcar supporters are stating the battle is not over after today’s expected vote.

Who knows what will happen next, but what happened this week defies logic. In a matter of just three days, the new mayor and council have undone all the work that has taken place over the past six years to get the streetcar project to this point. Some may call that rushed, chaotic and reckless, and we would be inclined to agree with those people.

We know many of our readers are very passionate about this issue and very much want to see the first phase of the streetcar not only completed, but eventually expanded city-wide in a manner that compliments regional rail and bus transit. We will be getting together at the Moerlein Lager House tomorrow from 5:30pm to 8:30pm for our monthly URBANexchange event, and we would love for you to join us and share your feelings and discuss what you think will or should happen next.

  • matimal

    OHHHH THE POWER!!!!!

  • John Bezold

    This is a really sad day for Cincinnati. Perhaps if the streetcar were called a ‘tram’, as they are here in Amsterdam, people would be more inclined to view the project in a favorable light.

    In the end, the city is only hurting itself. Having graduated from UC, I afterwards only considered cities in the USA in which I could live without a car: San Francisco, NYC, or Chicago. In the end I instead chose to move to Europe.

    Because: why would I want to sit around and wait for viable public transportation options in Cincinnati, where such options are doubted and now stalled, when I could instead move to another city that already has these transportation options–and then some? So I did.

    Cincinnati will only continue its brain drain until its downtown core is vibrant and well connected via multiple public transportation options, which will one day extend across the entire country. It’s not a matter of if such a network is created, it’s more a matter of when.

    Cincinnati is beautiful, and really deserves the immense outpouring of support that its residents are currently providing to it. Believe in your future, Cincinnati–you are unique.

    • Mitchell Brown

      I live in Chicago and I would like to be associated with the statement above. Also, I’m planning a visit to Cinci soon for no other reason than to get away and I want to walk around your neighborhoods and look at your beautiful and unique architecture. I also look forward to a bit of serendipity in your nightlife. What’s the best neighborhood for ambling from bar-to-bar? Obviously, without driving. Thanks. Signed, a Chicagoan jealous of your architecture and your hills.

    • Neil Clingerman

      I would do as such (remember to start early as there are no 4am bars!) as there is at least ok, (not good by chicago standards – make sure to use google maps) transit on this itinerary. Start up in Northside, check out the Northside tavern and a few other bars there, take the 17 bus or the 19 bus to Clifton Gaslight, on ludlow, hang out a few places there, then take a bus down to Over the Rhine on Mainstreet, and you can bar hop there or walk a relatively short distiance downtown with most stuff being around 6th street/Fountain Square.

      The best bars IMO are on Main Street in OTR. MOTR for good music, Japps for great cocktails – at about half the price you’d find them at Violet Hour (not as romantic as that place though and its a victim of its own success – it gets swamped) and Neons for the Beergarden. Make sure to also check out Arnolds nearby which is the oldest bar in the city. For downtown its super douchey but Igby’s is a really cool space, it reminds me of bars in River North, and the Moerlien Lager house has great views of downtown. Across the river there are a few places on Mainstrasse, but transit is a bit more difficult to get there, if summer a shuttle runs until midnight every 15 mins in the winter it stops way too early.

    • Mitchell Brown

      Thanks! I will do this.

  • jasomm

    That group of companies that now “support” the project collectively make Billions of dollars a year. Can the streetcar folks just organize them to collectively pull together the remaining ~$59million, non-federally funded parts of the project, and continue without city funds? That amount is a drop in the bucket for them.

    • zschmiez

      Ahhh yes, the “have him pay for it so i can use it” mentality. At least those corporations better the city. Frankly I think its a risky move doing ANYTHING to upset P&G.

    • Eric Douglas

      The Detroit M-1 streetcar has a corporate board of directors http://m-1rail.com/about-m-1-rail/board-of-directors/

    • jasomm

      Smale park got $30-$40million in private funding.Not outlandish to think companies wouldn’t consider donations for a streetcar as basically the same (PR from the donation and and marketing from getting the company name slapped on something).

    • zschmiez

      Parks have long been a good PR investment for corporations.

      Transportation, however, is something that serves residents, commercial, goverment, ALL groups.

      Putting trees in your front lawn is a heck of a lot different than paying for repaving your culdesac.

      On a similar note, schools need funding, arts, pensions. Why not have those corps pay for everything?

      where does it stop? Point is, Cincy was here long before Kroger or P&G or PureRomance. And will be here long after. Cant lean/rely/depend on those groups to fund everything for the city. Sometimes you have to do things for yourself.

    • jasomm

      I agree. Ideally we should only be getting corporate funding through higher corporate taxes, and funding public works for the public good from public funds. But in this special case we have some crazies in office who just don’t want public works at all, regardless of how it effects the public funds (muni budget, and federal funds), or the public good. So maybe a corporate sponsor can take the elected officials out of the equation in this one case.

    • Josh

      Apples and oranges. For one, the maintenance cap-ex is much more significant for rail than it is for a park.

    • runofthemill

      I think corporations in Cincy get plenty of coporate welfare…they can pay their fairshare through helping to fund things.

    • zschmiez

      The reverberations of a P&G or Kroger backing down 20% of their operations or sales would set Cincy back 15 years. Those companies are very helpful making the city go.

      Im certain they and their employees already pay their fair share.

      Are you insinuating they do not?

    • Eric Douglas

      If the Port or some other board was running the streetcar, Kroger and P&G could help manage the project for free and apolitically. You can’t do a project like this without the corporate support every other recent large project has had like Washington Park and Smale and that’s why it’s falling apart. Voters didn’t keep the streetcar council, the mayor doesn’t want it and the corporate community is indifferent, that’s not a recipe for success. I always had this gut feeling that once a certain group of people came into power eventually, they’d take the streetcar away from us but it happened sooner then I thought.

    • matimal

      That’s how American expressways are funded. Expressway users don’t pay half the cost of the roads they use. It’s a massive subsidy for long-distance drivers.

    • Mitchell Brown

      And the federal government doesn’t pay for their maintenance. Like my pappy said (he didn’t actually say this, and he didn’t speak so colloquially) “There ain’t no such thing as a free puppy.”

    • matimal

      There is a free lunch for road users in the U.S., Mitchell. —http://dc.streetsblog.org/2013/01/23/drivers-cover-just-51-percent-of-u-s-road-spending/. http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2013/09/these-2-charts-prove-american-drivers-dont-pay-enough-roads/6917/. http://taxfoundation.org/article/gasoline-taxes-and-tolls-pay-only-third-state-local-road-spending.

    • matimal

      Where do you think the U.S. government spends the ONE HALF of its spending that aren’t paid for by U.S. taxes? Yes, that’s right. The chinese government pays billions toward roads in the U.S. through its purchase of U.S. government bonds!

  • Eric Douglas

    Kevin Flynn is being deceived. The contents of the ordinances and how they were passed was far beyond a pause, and Cranley is now lining everything up so that when the issue is brought up again, the impacts of completely stopping the project have been minimized.

    Kevin Flynn is being deceitful. He said he needed more than an hour to review the prostreetcar ballots and offers before changing his mind. On Monday when the Streetcar Committee first met, there were no ordinances whatsoever to review, yet he was comfortable then voting against it.

    The only person you can trust lest than a lawyer is a politician.

    • matimal

      Send him an email telling him what you’ve written here. He needs to see views such as yours again and again.

  • Mitchell Brown

    How many of you on this board, who live in the city, have actually met face-to-face? Organize folks. You can’t do it effectively online. Good luck. You’ve got a damn fine city…if you can keep it.

  • Cecelia Jones

    OMG! This is a shame. If Cincinnati leadership can not find a common ground for the construction of a simple transit project, how do they intend to tackle major issues like the criminal justice system, city budgets, city construction plans, etc. These are grown ups in Huggies. #GetofftheSimilac