Because of a federal deadline, Vice Mayor David Mann and Councilman Kevin Flynn could decide the fate of the $132.8 million streetcar project on Dec. 18 — just two weeks after they were among five council members who decided to pause ongoing construction while an independent auditor reviews what it would cost to continue or permanently cancel the project.
The two council members’ votes could become particularly pivotal if one were to decide to continue the streetcar only to have Mayor John Cranley veto the legislation restarting the project, which Jay Kincaid, Cranley’s chief of staff, says the mayor is willing to do if he feels the project is still too expensive following the audit.
Some streetcar supporters label Cranley’s position a bait and switch: Only five council members voted to pause the project on Dec. 4, but a supermajority — six of nine council members — would be needed to overturn a mayoral veto and continue the project. With four streetcar supporters already on council, Flynn and Mann could become the two votes necessary to save the project.
It’s a strange situation for Flynn, whose current opposition to the project is a direct departure from the pro-streetcar position he held in 2009 and 2011, when he previously ran for council. Flynn told CityBeat in 2011, “I support the development of the streetcar as an economic development tool and job creator. All of the studies show, and all of the cities which have invested in streetcars have demonstrated, economic benefits for the city many times greater than the investment.”
Flynn claims he changed his mind on the streetcar after an argument with his barber led him to study the issue more thoroughly. Although he previously referenced “all” of the studies and “all” of the cities with streetcars as proof streetcars are sound investments, he now says he should have given greater due diligence to the 2007 study from consulting firm HDR that found Cincinnati’s streetcar project would produce a 2.7-to-1 return on investment over 35 years.
“A lot has changed over the last six years. And I admit I should have probably looked at this in 2011, but I trusted what the city manager was saying,” Flynn says.
Although Flynn and Mann ran their 2013 campaigns in opposition to the streetcar project, they now say they want a review of completion and cancellation costs to gauge whether it’s financially prudent to terminate the project so late into construction.
Streetcar Project Executive John Deatrick on Nov.
21 told council members that canceling the streetcar project could save only $7.5-$24.5 million in capital costs after accounting for $32.8 million in estimated sunk costs through November, $30.6-$47.6 million in close-out costs and up to $44.9 million in federal grants that would be lost if the project were stopped.
Flynn and Mann both say they respect Deatrick, but they want the numbers verified through an independent source that doesn’t have a stake in the project.
One of the numbers Flynn says he’s most concerned about is the operating cost. He says adding $2-$3 million in annual operating costs for the streetcar — the remaining amount after fares, sponsorships and private contributions pay for part of the $3.4-$4.5 million in estimated operating expenses — would effectively lead to layoffs in the police department. Before he can vote to continue, he’s asking for assurances that the operating costs can be paid through alternative sources.
Mann, on the other hand, says his focus is currently on the capital costs. He’s publicly supported Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld’s proposal to establish a special improvement district, which would raise property taxes near the streetcar line, to pay for the operating budget costs. But he says that proposal can only be taken to property owners if City Council moves forward with the project.
Flynn says he’s unsure whether a special improvement district will work, given some of the legal technicalities surrounding the proposal. He says he’s meeting with city budget officials to work out the details.
But if the city does find a way to get streetcar costs off the operating budget and Deatrick’s cancellation estimates hold to scrutiny, Flynn says his concerns with the project will be resolved.
Still, given that Flynn’s first successful council race came after he reversed his position on the streetcar, how beholden does he feel to his public opposition?
“I don’t know whether I’ll even run again in four years. I’m not your typical politician,” Flynn says. “So if I think it’s better for the city to move forward with the streetcar, I would move forward with the streetcar.”
Mann acknowledges what he heard and said on the campaign trail will play a role in his final decision, but he says he’s keeping an open mind.
“If the cost of stopping and the cost of going forward is close, I’m in favor of going forward,” Mann explains.
Flynn and Mann will need to make up their minds in just a couple weeks. The Federal Transit Administration on Dec. 6 told Mayor Cranley that the city has until Dec. 20 to make a decision on the project. If council doesn’t agree to continue with the streetcar by then, the project will lose up to $44.9 million in federal grants that are funding roughly one-third of the project — presumably a death blow, considering a majority of the current City Council is opposed to allocating the same amount of funds through local sources.
Council’s latest threat to the streetcar project is just the latest in a long chain of ups and downs for the project.
The biggest obstacle came when Gov. John Kasich, shortly after his victory against former Gov. Ted Strickland, pulled $52 million in federal funds from the streetcar project in 2011. That forced the city to shorten the initial route, which would have gone to the uptown area, including the University of Cincinnati and surrounding hospitals.
The project was also delayed twice by ballot initiatives in 2009 and 2011 that threatened to cancel the streetcar and prevent future funding on light rail projects. Both ballot measures failed despite heavy support from the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which is headed by Councilman Christopher Smitherman.
The project again stalled earlier in 2013 when construction contract bids came in $21.7 million higher than expected, which forced more delays as the city administration located cuts and $17.4 million in funding that was pulled from other capital projects to fill the gap.
But council’s latest pause is perhaps the closest the streetcar project has come to extinction. Depending on the support or opposition of a few cautious council members, it could be the last chance for supporters to save the project. ©
This story was updated after the mayor’s office clarified with the Federal Transit Administration that the city has to make a decision on the streetcar project by Dec. 20, not Dec. 19.