The Plot Continues to Thicken for Cincinnati’s $133M Streetcar Project

Streetcar Charter Amendment Announcement

Streetcar Supporters Gather Outside City Hall to Announce the Start of a Charter Amendment Petition Drive. Photograph by John Yung for UrbanCincy.

In the latest twist of the ongoing Cincinnati Streetcar saga, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Administrator, Peter Rogoff, sent a piercing letter to Mayor John Cranley (D) and all nine members of City Council informing them that the FTA is planning to act quickly on what they perceive as a material breach of contract.

“The Cincinnati City Council passed eleven ordinances on December 4, 2013, that have the effect of suspending progress on the Cincinnati Streetcar Project, an unprecedented action to suspend a federally funded transit project while it is currently under construction and after the City committed approximately $116 million in expenditures and contractual agreements,” Rogoff wrote.

“The Council’s action is a material breach of the FTA Master Agreement and the separate Grant Agreements executed between FTA, the City, and the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority to fund the project. As such, I write to inform you that unless this action is reversed and I receive not later than midnight on December 19, 2013, unequivocal assurances that the City will proceed with the project to completion on the current FTA-approved schedule, FTA will immediately terminate all of its grant obligations for the project and initiate a debt collection action to recover money owed.”

Strong words. It is no wonder Mayor Cranley jumped out in front of the media early on Facebook Friday morning to spin the letter as a positive development for his administration.

But what it also means is that the City of Cincinnati must complete its third financial audit of the project, with KPMG, no later than that date and should make a decision FTA finds satisfactory in order to avoid the loss of $40 million from the Federal government and debt collection on another $5 million of Federal money already spent.

“The City understood FTA’s position before it decided to suspend the project,” Rogoff emphasized with regard to ongoing claims by some streetcar opponents, contrary to what FTA has directly told them, who believe the $45 million in Federal funding could be reprogrammed to other area transportation projects.

Those activities happened on Friday and continued to evolve over the weekend. Meanwhile, the group fighting Mayor Cranley on this matter held a press conference on the steps of City Hall Monday morning announcing the start of a petition drive that would place a Charter amendment forcing the administration to finish the project according to its contractual agreements.

Streetcar supporters will need to gather 5,970 signatures in order to have the Charter amendment placed on the ballot, but say they are striving to collect 12,000 within five days in order to send a message to City Hall. Should they get the necessary signatures, it would be placed on the ballot for voters within 60 to 120 days according to state law.

“We are confident that this [the city’s ongoing financial audit] will show that the cost to stop the streetcar is more than the cost to continue,” Ryan Messer, unofficial spokesman for the ‘We Believe in Cincinnati’ organization, told the crowd. “We hope at that point City Council will remove the pause button and hit the restart button, so we can continue to see the growth and development that has already come as a result of the Cincinnati Streetcar.”

Article XVII Streetcar Charter Amendment


At the same time, Mayor Cranley has gone on the record and stated that he would potentially veto any majority vote by City Council to restart construction and complete the project. Such a move would require the Charter amendment or a 6-3 super majority vote of City Council to override the mayor’s veto.

Following Monday’s press conference, the ‘We Believe in Cincinnati’ organizers say they will host a signature gathering training session tomorrow evening at First Lutheran Church at 1208 Race Street in Over-the-Rhine from 6pm to 8pm. Organizers say all are welcome to attend and that they expect hundreds to show up for what will be the first of a five-day blitz to collect thousands of signatures.

In order to get to the super majority vote, streetcar supporters need both Vice Mayor David Mann (D) and Councilman Kevin Flynn (C) to side with the four existing council members supporting the project. While both Mann and Flynn have stated, and campaigned on the fact, that they would consider the facts and figures before making a decision, both have shown indications that their minds may already be made up even before the latest audit is completed.

“I’m not against the streetcar because I’m against streetcars,” Flynn, who prior to being elected had been a prominent streetcar supporter, told The Enquirer on Monday. “I’m against it because I don’t think it makes economic sense for the city right now. I don’t think the numbers are going to come back supportive.”

Whether Flynn and Mann were sincere in saying that they would reasonably consider the facts and figures associated with taking “unprecedented action” to cancel a project already under construction, or not, is yet to be seen. But in either case it appears that streetcar supporters have a tough road ahead of them.

  • matimal

    If a ‘lesson’ can be drawn from Cincinnati’s political history, it’s that successful activities in Cincinnati are well insulated from Cincinnati Council. SORTA, The Banks, Reds Stadium, Cincinnati Public Schools ( easily the best urban school district in the midwest), its regional sewer and water system, libraries, 3cdc, and the new Port Authority are all success stories or promising efforts at pragmatic sharing of costs and benefits. All are largely or completely outside the control of Cincinnati Council even though they operate some or all of their activities within the boundaries of the municipality of Cincinnati. Since regional cooperation has been viciously fought in the past in Cincinnati, the secret is to create a de facto regionalism by hollowing out Cincinnati Council until it is left with as few powers as possible. Cincinnati will still exist as a municipality, but meaningful functions will be conducted by institutions over which it has not statutory control. We can work to do this with streetcars and BRT as well as anything else. Take Cincinnati Council out of the equation and power can flow through many groups and local government to achieve many things. Tin pot dictators like cranely will be left with little to destroy in their pathetic pursuits of power.

    • Eric Douglas

      Mallory should have setup a nonprofit PPP or let the Port run the streetcar.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Well we all saw how well that worked out for the Parking Modernization & Lease plan.

      Opponents are opponents are opponents. This group has always distrusted and despised Mark Mallory, and now they are making him, and anyone who associated with him, pay the price. This is nothing more than one set of politicians settling a score with another set of politicians. It’s spiteful and damaging to the city.

    • Neil Clingerman

      And by upvoting I mean its an insightful comment, what’s going on is nothing short of horrific.

    • Eric Douglas

      The parking plan was foolishly rushed through during an election year and probably at the expense of a streetcar majority (Quinlivan-Murray). There are years of planning and support behind the streetcar. If some type of entity was setup to run it 1-3 years ago, it’s out of council’s hands and maybe doesn’t get caught in the middle of an election. No one opposes 3CDC or the Port as entities, centralized municipal control of streetcars was one of the reasons GM was able to so easily replace systems across the U.S. with buses. I think this is a classic reminder that you can’t trust politicians. We were misled on the parking lease and now we’re going to end up with neither.

    • http://travisestell.com/ Travis

      I agree with you, but the parking deal was almost exactly what you are suggesting — outsourcing a government service to the Port Authority. The majority of the electorate probably didn’t know that, and believed that the city was contracting directly with Xerox to run the parking system.

    • Eric Douglas

      The Port was just an example. A nonprofit like 3CDC would have been ideal and was used in Portland, Atlanta, unbuilt LA and No VA- http://reconnectingamerica.org/assets/Uploads/pstrtcrtaylor.pdf

    • matimal

      The majority of which electorate? In a regional system, there wouldn’t be one electorate. That is my point. Who is the ‘electorate’ for libraries? Who is the ‘electorate’ for water and sewer?

    • charles ross

      Actually, and I am puzzled by it, I hear a lot of hate against 3CDC. It comes from both ends of the spectrum – the exurban FoxNewsies and the city focused BuddyGraysies. It almost seems like both camps would just prefer that OTR be left as an empty relic were street people can camp out.

    • matimal

      There is nothing “almost” it. That is exactly what they want. They are the true conservatives. They want no change of any kind at all.

    • matimal

      The port authority is only one example. You can’t win them all, but regionally minded people have won through the use of the other examples I’ve mentioned. The banks, 3cdc, and the hamilton county libraries aren’t about settling scores, they offer alternative models to score settling in cincinnati. That is my point.

  • ThatDeborahGirl

    So forget about the government the people actually voted for. If you’re not rich enough to be a part of some board made up of the “our betters” then we obviously don’t count enough to know what’s in our own best interest.

    The more I read your little screed the angrier I get. What you’re proposing is no better than your “tin pot dictator” scenario. I don’t want a board made of so-called elite know-nothings dictating to the rest of the city for their own good and not the good of everyone.

    It’s bad enough 3CDC has sunk their mighty paws into Cincinnati. But this city should do more than cater to the likes of people who think whatever they want is good for everyone. The truth is, everyone does NOT benefit from the streetcar and it is not going to be profitable. In the end, we’re going to lose far more than what we’ve wrongly invested, but no one thinks of long term profit or even cares. The rich people better get their streetcar or else.

    I hope Cranley kills it and I hope it teaches the rest of you a lesson – that the working class people of this city will be heard.

    • Frank

      The whole point of the streetcar is the long term financial well-being of all Cincinnatians. We need to develop our dwindling tax base. Increased property values and development, in a previously neglected part of the city, will help. I don’t get why anyone who loves Cincinnati, and has a basic understanding of the financial structure of the deal, can be opposed to the streetcar. We have been given MILLION$ to improve our city. Some, like you, want to give it back (and then some) with nothing to show for it. In essence, ‘bury it’ much like the guy in the bible parable who
      buried the gold instead of investing it, out of fear and ignorance. In a nutshell, I’m pro-streetcar because it is (already) increasing our tax base, reducing crime, and helping us to recruit
      top talent/young professionals and, keep homegrown talent from relocating. You’ve got to spend money to make money. Writing more speeding and parking tickets is not a sustainable way for the city to survive financially.

    • Eric Douglas

      This rant is so obscure I’m not sure how to respond to anything that was said. Having four paragraphs doesn’t mean your argument is structured, and the conclusion is barely supported by anything else you said. Take a persuasive writing or just a basic English course. Most of the people associated with this blog are working class and just want some transportation balance.

    • matimal

      Forget about the government only 16% of “the people” voted for. That’s right. If even Cincinnatians can’t be bothered to support something, that something doesn’t have much democratic legitimacy or value to the majority. My agenda would bring far MORE people into local politics. It would be MORE democratic and offer MORE choice. In fact, it already has in the areas I’ve mentioned.

    • http://zacharyschunn.wix.com/ Zachary Schunn

      Anger and frustration doesn’t make one correct.

      The most successful politicians–including, especially, Mayor Cranley–know how to campaign based on emotions, not facts.

      If this were 2011, the streetcar would be dead, or at least seriously delayed. Until there is a well-reasoned argument why we should spend more money to stop it than to complete it, your anger will convince no one with knowledge of the facts.

    • matimal

      cranely isn’t really “successful.” he’s merely momentarily lucky. That is something very different.

    • http://zacharyschunn.wix.com/ Zachary Schunn

      He’s a successful campaigner.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Sad that successful campaigner doesn’t translate into leadership qualities in other areas. I’m preaching to the choir here, but everyone should acquaint themselves with this man’s history (they should have before the election): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4Zz9zVvcqg&list=PLIlmcDu2xE0UWp1MhyB7_fO6gE18MrN66

    • Josh

      I have seen this posted elsewhere. Give the guy a break. This is almost 15 years old. He was like 28 years old and green. I know I sure as heck would have struggled in this spot facing down what is essentially an angry mob. I don’t particularly like the guy but to use this as ammo against him is unfair as there is plenty of better material available. I feel genuinely sorry for him in this spot.

    • Neil Clingerman

      The guy is a leader of a large diverse city, he has to be able to deal with these kinds of situations to be a qualified leader. Setting policies aside, this video proves very clearly that he is not a qualified leader.

      A good leader would have known to listen to the crowd and at least throw a bone to their concerns instead just like with this streetcar debate he put his hands in his ears, didn’t listen and arrogantly stated that he’d stop the special meeting if they kept disrupting it. His actions made a crisis situation escalate into a mess that it took Cincinnati 10 years to dig itself out of. The whole thing could have been handled much more professionally and this lack of professionalism is a very good reason for Cincinnatians to support a recall of Cranley.

      His recent actions also don’t prove that he was just being green, look at the kind of vitrol his behavior has inspired. This is NOT what Cincinnati needs, even someone like PG who’s wishywashy would be better for the city.

    • jasomm
    • matimal

      Why do you care about the “working class people of this city”? You aren’t one of them.

    • ThatDeborahGirl

      Really? Did I suddenly get rich and I forgot? I’m in the money, I’m in the money….oh, wait, no I’m not….back to unemployment….I had a job interview today though. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

    • matimal

      You aren’t a legal resident of Cincinnati.

    • ThatDeborahGirl

      You’re right. At the moment I’m not. I live in NCH. But since I work in Cincinnati and live in Hamilton County guess whose tax dollars will be supporting the streetcar?

    • matimal

      YES!!!!!! I’m NEVER wrong when I call people on their Cincinnati residency. No one who feels the way Deborah feels would continue to, or has ever, lived in Cincinnati. You can’t withhold that which you never offered in the first place.

    • ThatDeborahGirl

      I lived, worked and attended church in Cincinnati for the majority of my life and now I live in NCH – which honestly means I’m surrounded by Cincinnati on all sides. I didn’t even know until I moved here that they have their own police and fire and mayor and such. But by that logic a lot of little townships, including Norwood aren’t Cincinnati either. But hey, that .00001 miles between College Hill and North College Hill, which stretches 8 blocks in any direction at most seems to really mean a lot to you. I don’t even let people address my mail to NCH because it gets lost if it doesn’t say Cincinnati, zip codes bedamned. So as far as not living in Cincinnati…get a grip. It’s not like I’m in Indiana somewhere. Seriously. It’s not really an aha moment. And because I work in the city, I still get taxed there. So aha. I guess. really. You’re kinda delusional.

    • http://travisestell.com/ Travis

      > “But by that logic a lot of little townships, including Norwood aren’t Cincinnati either.”

      Norwood is not a township, it’s a city. They have their own mayor and city council, police and fire departments, and other city services. Someone who lives in Norwood gets to vote for Norwood’s leadership, not Cincinnati’s.

      If local townships want to have a say in city politics, I suggest that they push for annexation into the city.

      > “But hey, that .00001 miles between College Hill and North College Hill, which stretches 8 blocks in any direction at most seems to really mean a lot to you.”

      It makes a big difference, because it’s a different political jurisdiction. Ohio and Kentucky are just a cross the river from eachother, but I can’t vote in Kentucky elections because I live in Ohio.

    • matimal

      Let’s see…what insulting thing can I write about Noth College Hill…….?

    • Mark Christol

      The thing about the streetcar is that it empowers lower class people (lower than rich) with entrepreneurial opportunities along the route.
      Some people just want handouts & giveaways, tho.
      And lets not forget the suburbanites that want to maintain OTR as a dumping ground.

    • ThatDeborahGirl

      You mean all the lower class people that they pushed out to gentrify OTR? Seriously. wake up!

    • Mark Christol

      People moved out of OTR on their own. I watched the northern part around McMicken turn into a ghost town. Should it just be left like that so some lost tribe of poor people can maybe move back in someday?
      Your argument is ridiculous.

    • AkronRonin

      Umm yeah, because nothing “teaches a lesson” better than cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    • ThatDeborahGirl

      Well, you’ve got the streetcar now, so only time will tell. I really hope that it’s successful, but in the end, we’re going to paying out the ass for it, just like the stadiums.
      http://everything2.com/title/The+Cincinnati+stadium+rape

    • http://zacharyschunn.wix.com/ Zachary Schunn

      The streetcar/stadium comparison doesn’t make sense and never has.

      The stadiums were a county project approved by ballot initiative with a lot of suburban support (including the COAST group). Most of the people I know who lived in Cincinnati proper in 2002 thought it was a silly idea. They would have rather seen a Reds stadium at the Broadway Commons site, and couldn’t care less about paying off Mike Brown.

      The stadium deficit is largely a result of poor economic assumptions, and delayed development that was supposed to help pay for the fund. The Banks didn’t finally happen until the County let Mallory lead the charge back in 2006. It wouldn’t have happened at all if Roxanne Qualls hadn’t pushed to move Paul Brown Stadium west to allow room for the development.

      Frankly, the fact that the city still gets blamed for a failed county project that the city stepped in and saved baffles me.

  • Eric Douglas

    We need to continue to focus on Mann and Flynn. Like PG said, we’ve known all along where Cranley stands. The people that were fooled were moderates that voted for Mann and Flynn that thought they’d be objective about the project when they’re clearly not. Cranley is not a strong mayor, I hope history is hard on David Mann and Kevin Flynn.

  • http://www.cincymap.org/ Nate Wessel

    Soooo…They want to get a charter amendment to force the City to finish the project, but that can only happen months after the federal money has already been pulled? How is that going to work?

    • http://www.jjakucyk.com/ Jeffrey Jakucyk

      That’s what I’d like to know. There may be some legal methods to keep the project going, namely Ohio Revised Code 733.57 regarding “Specific Performance,” though I’m no lawyer so I can’t really say for sure. But still, since council only has until December 19 to decide on the streetcar before the federal funds are pulled, what purpose would a charter amendment serve? By the time citizens can vote on this amendment either council will have voted to keep the project going, at which point no charter amendment will be necessary, or they vote to cancel it, and the federal funds will be gone. So what good will voting on the project do with no federal funds? I’m just trying to understand.

    • Adam Nelson

      I’m sure Cranley is aware of that predicament and relishes it.

    • Matt Jacob

      My take is that the federal government might not legally (based on our contract with them) be able to take back the money for good before the next quarterly report is due. They may be able to freeze it before then like they have already, but I think the city could sue the federal government for not holding their end of the contract if they pull it sooner. We need to show “reasonable progress” by that next report to keep the funding long term. But what is reasonable? We made some progress between the last report on 11/30/2013 and when the ordinances took effect. Is there a specific schedule in the contract that we’re breaking? To my knowledge the contracts have not been made public, so we can’t say.

      The letter from the DOT was simply their lawyer’s opinion on the matter and their formal demand in case they need to go to court on the matter to show that they asked us for it/told us. I think they’ve worked with us so far in understanding what our elected officials need in terms of making a final decision on the project, namely the analysis, so they’ve given us that time (believed to be until Dec 18th). If the decision is actually up to the voters and not council, the hope is that the DOT would extend the same courtesy (plus the Obama admin wants this to get done, which helps).

      I guess bottom line is that we’re hoping the DOT is nice, but might also be able to tie this up in the courts too if they aren’t in order to hold onto the funding.

    • http://www.cincymap.org/ Nate Wessel

      Thanks for the detailed answer!

      It’s a little terrifying to think we might sue the DOT…and they say we may already have burned some bridges there!

    • Matt Jacob

      I’m less concerned about the DOT relationship than others are. Many governmental orginazations turnover with the administration (especially the higher ups that pull the strings). On the govermental level it’s really more about buddying up with those people to get what you want. Mallory did this especially well as evidenced by the high amounts we received. You’ve got to put in the time if you want some of the limited federal money.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Mallory worked long and hard to build up the relationship Cincinnati has with the federal government at this point. That’s why the city has been so successful at winning federal grants for everything from the streetcar, to covering payrolls for police officers, to the Smale Riverfront Park and The Banks.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Terrifying indeed.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Terrifying indeed.

    • matimal

      A journey of a thousand miles may being with one step, but each step occurs because the walker has a destination in mind.

    • TimSchirmang

      Thanks for the enlightenment. When you come down from your high can you consider responding with substance? This is actually a good question that charter amendment signatories should have an answer to.

    • matimal

      Your sarcasm doesn’t help anyone or anything. The long- and short-term are not mutually exclusive.

    • TimSchirmang

      Precisely. In fact I would suggest the long and short terms should be coordinated on a project like this. Does it make sense to have a charter amendment that mandates completion when the folks pressing the amendment are convinced that $45M in funding will be irrevocably lost by the time the amendment could come into effect?

      The charter amendment appears to be the same, ‘money isn’t real, we’ll figure it out tomorrow’ mentality that has come to characterize the management of this project.

      In a grand irony, the leaders and supporters of this project are as responsible for putting it on the brink of cancellation as the opposition. Here we are in the 11th hour and project defenders still cannot get out of their own way.

    • matimal

      What is the long-term implication of a streetcar line? It is a system of transportation choices that allows cincinnatians to travel with less expense for themselves and for government. It is rejection of this vision that has motivated streetcar opponents, not concerns with the costs or benefits of this current streetcar line as such. They don’t want increased choice for the poor or the car-less. They only want it for themselves. They are passionately committed to making sure that the poor in OTR stay there and don’t come to their neighborhood. That is their vision. $45 million WILL be irrevocably lost if we don’t continue to use it. It will be snatched up by some other place in a D.C. minute. The competition for transportation money in American today is brutally intense.

    • TimSchirmang

      What?!

    • matimal

      Ohhhhh, you thought that I was being sarcastic. Responding to sarcasm isn’t automatically sarcastic. I wasn’t being sarcastic. I was connecting the short and long term in a way that Nate was trying to dismiss. That isn’t sarcasm. Nor are any of my other comments here. I’m very serious about what I’ve written here.

    • grumpyoldbitch

      The streetcar has absolutely nothing to do with the poor. We ride the busses and wonder why yuppie puppies can’t do the same.

    • http://travisestell.com/ Travis

      This is not an us vs. them issue. Rail transit will benefit every neighborhood in the city, and will eventually reach every neighborhood in the city. We are starting downtown and moving outward from there. (Are you suggesting that we start in Kennedy Heights or Westwood and build the system toward downtown?)

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      I guess since I am 28 years old, have a professional job and live in the city with no car I am maybe a “yuppie puppie.” But here’s the thing…I ride the bus every day of my life, so I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here.

    • matimal

      And those who drive everywhere on roads their gas taxes don’t pay half the cost of wonder why you can’t do the same as them.

  • http://www.chicagocarless.com MikeDoyle

    There’s a huge missing point here. FTA has already in effect penalized transit in Cincinnati by denying that $1.4 million reimbursement to SORTA. That money will have to come from somewhere to make SORTA’s budget whole, or SORTA will have to remove $1.4 million in monies already budgeted for existing operations. And if that’s not bad enough, in order to correct the $5 million in federal monies already spent, FTA can freeze any earmarked federal payments destined for Cincinnati, not just transit monies. That means the city could suddenly find $5 million in federal social services, housing, or unemployment disbursements eliminated.

    And that will happen, because the FTA will seek to make an example of Cincinnati. Other cities went without federal funding in order for Cincinnati’s streetcar to get funded since federal transit funds are competitive, and FTA will want to ensure its actions here discourage other municipalities from unilaterally backing out of funding contracts. Beyond which, Cincinnati will never receive federal transit capital funding again. So no matter how the new mayor spins it, Cincinnati has really screwed itself here.

  • TimSchirmang

    Just as I mentioned 9 days ago…”There have been hints of adult conversation and they suggest that if the operating costs are covered, most of council and I bet even Cranley would green light phase 1 today. “… this really is about economics, not ‘keeping poor people in OTR’ or ‘limiting their transit options’.

    • matimal

      You can’t be that naive to think that politics is driven by people’s calm analysis of their economic situation. this is all happening BECAUSE of the aggressive full court press against cranely, not because of any supposed “adult conversation.” Politics is an ugly business, even if some don’t have the guts to admit it.