Ruling From Judge Stich Potentially Very Damaging for Local Governments in Ohio

Cincinnati Streetcar Phase 1 RouteThe Business Courier reported yesterday that Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Carl Stich (R) ruled that the City of Cincinnati must pay for the relocation of Duke Energy’s utilities along the first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar system.

As learned from a leaked internal memo last December, this decision was expected by city officials who will now be on the hook for an additional $15 million in costs – expenses that will be covered by the project’s existing contingency fund.

In Stich’s ruling, he cited an Ohio Supreme Court case from 1955, Speeth v. Carney, that stated government-owned transit systems are proprietary functions, not government ones. This is important because that is what lays the foundation for Stich’s ruling, but also sets a potentially far-reaching precedence for what costs local governments are expected to bear when making infrastructure investments.

As a result, former city solicitor John Curp says that Cincinnati should appeal the ruling.

“The troubling element of the ruling for local governments is that the court looked under the hood of the streetcar and based its decision on one debated effect of the project rather than principal operation of the project, which is transportation,” Curp told the Business Courier – an UrbanCincy content partner. “Nearly every government project is justified as an economic development project. If applied more broadly, this decision could add significant costs to local government infrastructure projects.”

Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black seems to agree, and says that the city will in fact appeal the ruling.

Furthermore, Judge Stich did address the fact that the rulings used to make his decision were quite old and rendered during a time when private companies owned and operated public transit systems. This is a notable difference from today where that is largely non-existent, and would seemingly change the entire discussion in a case of this nature.

“The court noted that the case it found controlling was an anachronism to a bygone era where private companies ran public transportation,” Curp said. “The current reality is that government heavily subsidizes almost all forms of public transportation. No one mistakes public transportation as a proprietary, money-making venture. An appeal would help ensure that all local governments are working on equal footing and none have a competitive advantage on costs for new infrastructure projects”

In addition to Duke Energy, there are a half-dozen other utility companies that are within the project area, but all of those companies had come to terms with the City prior to the commencement of construction. The question now is what financial obligations, if any, those companies will have on future infrastructure projects pursued by City Hall.

Furthermore, the decision shines an interesting light on how infrastructure projects and their associated costs are rarely neatly defined. These utility costs, for example, are being covered through the budget for the streetcar, but have nothing to do with rail transit. In fact, a large sum of the budget for the Cincinnati Streetcar is actually allocated to things that have nothing to do (e.g. buried utilities, utility upgrades and relocations, and road resurfacing) with the direct construction or operation of the transit system.

The project, however, brings up a very convenient and cost-effective time in which to make such improvements. As has been discovered thus far, many of these improvements have been sorely needed. In Over-the-Rhine, for example, broken water mains, wooden pipes and other outdated infrastructure has been discovered and either repaired or upgraded as a result of the project.

This is a coup for any utility company that can have the cost of upgrading their systems shouldered by the taxpayers, instead of their ratepayers, as such is the case in this Duke Energy example.

Since much of the costs for the project are related to non-streetcar items, it seems to lean toward Curp’s concern of the ruling being applied more broadly.

“The case is also important for other cities in Ohio,” said City Manager Black. “The decision may ultimately dictate who pays for local infrastructure improvements that require the movement of utilities on public property: the taxpayers or the utility.”

With an appeal forthcoming, it appears that lawyers will continue to reap the benefits of this political battle. Meanwhile, construction progresses on the Cincinnati Streetcar project on-time and on-budget.

PHOTOS: Take A Look Inside Cincinnati’s Deteriorating Union Terminal

Cincinnati’s Union Terminal is one of the few remaining gems of its kind. In addition to being a part of the golden era for passenger rail travel, the grand structure also pioneered the modern, long-distance travel building architecture for many of today’s airports.

Built the 1933, the impressive Art Deco structure was originally designed by Steward Wagner and Alfred Fellheimer as a passenger rail station. When it opened it even included a large terminal building that extended over the railroad tracks below.

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After train service was drastically reduced in 1971, the building began to languish. Shortly thereafter, freight railroad companies moved in to acquire some of the land and the terminal building was removed. Facing imminent demolition approximately one decade later, Hamilton County voters approved a bond levy to restore the structure.

When renovations were complete in 1990, some passenger rail operations were restored and what we know of today as the Museum Center moved in. However, not much has been done to maintain the building since that time and even those repairs that were done in the late 1980s were only some of what was needed. That means the building is once again in need of an overall in order to stay in use.

On Tuesday, November 4, Hamilton County voters will once again decide the fate of one of the region’s most prominent landmarks. They will go to the polls to decide whether they want to initiate a quarter-cent sales tax to provide up to $170 million for the $208 million project.

To get a better idea of the current conditions of Union Terminal, I took a behind the scenes tour of the facility two weeks ago. There is noticeable water damage throughout the building, some visible structural damage and outdated HVAC systems that are driving up maintenance costs for the behemoth structure.

Whether this particular region icon is saved once more by the voters of Hamilton County, or not, is something we will soon find out.

EDITORIAL NOTE: All 11 photos were taken by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy on Saturday, September 27.

Relive Last Weekend’s MidPoint Music Festival Through These 28 Photos

The thirteenth annual MidPoint Music Festival entertained thousands of spectators over the weekend, with 150 acts spread out over 14 stages at a dozen venues throughout Downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

As you might expect from an urban music festival like this, where some stages are literally set up in the middle of the street and open to the public, as was the MidPoint Midway on Twelfth Street, the three-day festival brought scores of people out onto the streets and crowded nearby restaurants and bars.

One of the interesting new elements for this year’s event, although not officially related, was the emergence of Cincy Red Bike. Its presence allowed many festival-goers, as was evidenced on the ground and via social media postings, to get around from venue-to-venue by using the public bike share system.

Washington Park served as the main stage each night of MidPoint, and played host to such headliners as Chromeo (Toronto), The Afghan Whigs (Cincinnati) and OK Go (Los Angeles) – all of which put on powerful and memorable performances.

Now that this year’s MidPoint is in the books, it leaves everyone wondering who and what will be on tap for 2015. The rising popularity of Over-the-Rhine makes securing venues difficult each year, and festival organizers say that they will also have to figure out where, if at all, to locate the MidPoint Midway in the future once the Cincinnati Streetcar begins operating on Twelfth Street.

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EDITORIAL NOTE: All 28 photos were taken by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy between Thursday, September 25 and Saturday, September 27.

PHOTOS: Northside Rock N’ Roll Carnival Complimented Independence Day Celebrations

The Northside Fourth of July Parade has been was of the region’s most popular for decades, but this year neighborhood leaders decided to build upon that success with the Northside Rock N’ Roll Carnival.

The three-day event took place at Hoffner Park and began on Thursday and concluded on Saturday night. It included stand-up comedy, live music, various carnival activities and even a BMX and skateboard competition.

Like the parade, the Northside Rock N’ Roll Carnival was put on by the Northside Business Association and sponsored by a number of local businesses including Spun Bicycles, CityBeat, Comet, CoSign, Gaslight Property, Happen, Inc., Milhaus Development, Mt. Carmel Brewing Company, Northside Tavern, N.Y.P.D. Pizza, and Shake It Records.

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While this was the first official year for the carnival festivities, organizers say the three-day event is an extension of the festival that has been put on since the 1980s.

“The Rock ‘N Roll Carnival was initially dreamt up by Chris Schadler in 2005 then carved out, cleaned up and driven home by Leslie Scott & Chris in 2006,” organizers say on the festival’s website.

“The event has endured weather, economy and exhaustion and continues through the work and support of the Northside Business Association and numerous Northside residents and businesses for the sake of showcasing Cincinnati’s most independent neighborhood.”

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EDITORIAL NOTE: All 57 photographs in these galleries were taken by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy between Thursday, July 3 and Saturday, July 5, 2014.

PHOTOS: 49 Shots from the 2014 Northside Fourth of July Parade

After the Northside Fourth of July Parade came back to life in 1970, it has served as an annual fixture in the neighborhood. Over the years the crowds have grown and the parade has become a must-stop for any politicians looking to win votes in the city.

While this was the 44th consecutive year for the parade, its history dates back to the middle of the 19th century when the St. Joseph Orphanage was completed.

Aside from being one of the most significant and well-attended parades in the region, the Northside Fourth of July Parade is also one of the more eclectic.

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EDITORIAL NOTE: All 49 photographs in this gallery were taken by Jake Mecklenborg on Friday, July 4, 2014.