Take that, John Kasich.
If Ohio’s execrable new governor thought he was going to stop Cincinnati’s long-planned streetcar project by blocking $51.8 million in state funding for the project, he’d better think again.
Led by Mayor Mark Mallory and City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr., city officials last week unveiled a new, shorter Phase One for the proposed system. The revised project now will be comprised of a four-mile initial segment from downtown’s Fountain Square to Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine, at a cost of $95 million.
Among the sites connected by the initial segment are Government Square, Fountain Square, Washington Park, Findlay Market, the Aronoff Center for the Arts, Vine Street’s Gateway Quarter, Music Hall and the planned casino at Broadway Commons.
An additional segment connecting Findlay Market to the uptown area near the University Hospital will be built later, officials said.
Also, although an earlier segment from Fountain Square to The Banks riverfront district wasn’t included in the revamped plan, officials hope it still might be included in the initial phase if other funding sources can be found to pay for its $9 million cost, such as federal grants or private donations.
“The vision for the project remains the same,” Mallory said at a press conference, announcing the shorter route. “We are going to build a streetcar that connects downtown to uptown, and then we are going to build out into the neighborhoods. We are going to get started with the funding that we have in hand. We must move forward in order to attract jobs and residents to our region.”
After Kasich took office in January, the Far Right conservative who dislikes mass transit made his displeasure known about Cincinnati’s project.
Shortly afterward, the state’s Transportation Review Advisory Council pulled nearly $52 million it tentatively approved for the streetcar last year — even though the project rated 84 on the group’s 100-point scale, far higher than other projects it funded.
Yet another effort to derail Cincinnati’s streetcar project — this one by State Sen. Shannon Faulkner Jones (R-Springboro), the same suburbanite who introduced the bill restricting collective bargaining rights for public-sector labor unions — also won’t have as much of an impact as she or Kasich had hoped.
Jones had inserted an amendment into the $7 billion, two-year state transportation budget that was described as prohibiting the use of any state or federal money for streetcars.
In fact, what the amendment actually does is prohibit the use for federal grants administered by state government or any state agency. Cincinnati still can use federal grants that go directly to the city or through the region’s mass transit agency, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA).
SORTA, which currently operates the Metro bus system, also will manage and operate the streetcar system for the city.
Cincinnati officials have $99.5 million allocated for the project, which will pay for the first phase. Of that amount, $25 million comes from an urban circulator grant awarded by the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA); $4 million comes from a congestion mitigation and air quality improvement grant by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments; $6.5 million comes from Duke Energy; and the remaining $64 million will come from construction bonds issued by the city.
The project’s pace now will be determined mostly by the FTA; it’s expected to issue an environmental assessment report on the project in early June. Also, city staffers are busy working out the details of the contract with SORTA.
Once those tasks are completed, final design work can begin and the city will buy the actual streetcars needed for the system, as well as purchase land along the route for a maintenance facility and garage.
Although construction still tentatively is set to begin later this year, the system’s opening has been pushed back from April 2012 until sometime in 2013.
The system will operate 18 hours a day, seven days a week and will use five streetcars instead of the originally planned seven.
Some streetcar critics have alleged a potential hurdle will be the cost to relocate utilities along the route, noting Duke Energy’s estimates were about $16 million higher than the city’s. But officials say the figures are inflated and misleading.
More importantly, officials noted the city has the upper hand in negotiations because it lets Duke use public rights-of-way for its gas and electric lines. In reality, the city might not have to reimburse any of Duke’s cost and, even if it does, the project instead could shift to using battery-powered streetcars instead of ones connected to overhead electrical lines.
Discussed since at least 2006, Cincinnati’s proposed streetcar system is primarily touted for its effect on economic development, spurring investment in vacant and dilapidated properties along its route.
Studies have indicated the local streetcar system would spark nearly $1.4 billion in new development, which means it would produce — when adjusted in today’s value — up to $2.70 in economic activity for every $1 invested. City officials say a total of 92 acres of land in downtown and Over-the-Rhine would be affected by the project’s initial phase.
Further, an estimated 310 construction jobs will be created to build the system, with 25 to 30 people needed later for ongoing operations.
“Those are very specific numbers,” says one City Hall insider. “Critics always say they have questions, but the answers are there if they really want to look.”
Here’s the kicker: Not a single penny from the city’s General Fund is needed for operating expenses, officials say.
Annual operating and maintenance costs for the revised route are estimated at $2.5 million. Officials have earmarked up to $3 million in future casino revenues toward that purpose, along with $400,000 in parking meter revenues and $200,000 from naming rights at sponsored stops along the route. Additionally, between $465,000 and $675,000 will be collected through fares, they say.
Dozens of other U.S. cities are turning to streetcars to lure people back to urban areas. One of those is a $5.3 million extension of a streetcar line in downtown Tampa, Fla., which opened in February.
According to the St. Petersburg Times, “...the system has spurred a billion dollars in private development alongside the route in the past eight years and is a marketing tool in Tampa’s bids to attract conventions and events, such as the Republican National Convention, said Marcia Mejia, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.”
That sounds like a winning formula that could work in Cincinnati, as long as the Luddites and Libertarians don’t get their way.
Meanwhile, have you seen any alternate plan proposed by Kasich or Jones to bolster the city’s economic fortunes? (Cue the sound of crickets chirping.)
Repeat after me: I think we can, I think we can.
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