A proposal made today by a Hamilton County commissioner involving sewer work related to the city of Cincinnati's planned streetcar system won't harm or delay the project, city staffers said.
That's because the motion introduced by County Commissioner Chris Monzel, a streetcar foe, would only affect additional improvements sought by the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), said Chris Eilerman, the city's streetcar project manager. The city already has allocated $3 million of its own money to relocate manholes needed for the streetcar project and do some of MSD's other improvements.
During the past two weeks CityBeat has published its list of endorsements in the race for Cincinnati City Council,along with those on local and state issues.
Some readers have requested that the endorsements be put into a smaller format that will be simpler to print out and take along with them to their polling places on Tuesday.
So, here it is. Clip, save and enjoy.
The person who often ranks in polls as the most popular politician in Hamilton County is breaking with his Republican colleagues and is appearing in a new radio commercial urging a “no” vote on Issue 48.
Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. asks residents to oppose the anti-streetcar initiative that was placed on the ballot by the NAACP's local chapter and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST). The commercial will begin airing Wednesday during the morning drive time period on WLW (700 AM) and WKRC (550 AM), two stations with predominately conservative, Republican audiences.
Supporters of the $133 million streetcar project on Thursday night packed Mercantile Library and Fountain Square to start a two-week campaign that seeks to prevent the incoming mayor and City Council from canceling the ongoing project.
Turnout was particularly strong as supporters reached the 200-person capacity at Mercantile Library before the event started. Another 200 watched the event from the Jumbotron screen at Fountain Square, according to the event's organizers.
In attendance were several Over-the-Rhine business owners and residents; council members P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young; and several supporters of the project from around the city.
The goal of the event was to organize supporters and begin a lobbying campaign to convince the three perceived swing votes in the incoming council — Sittenfeld, David Mann and Kevin Flynn — to support continuing the project. All three have spoken against the streetcar in the past, but they told CityBeat they want to fully account for the project's cancellation costs, completion costs and potential return on investment before making a final decision.
Speakers urged supporters to contact the nine newly elected council members and raise awareness about the streetcar's benefits before Mayor-elect John Cranley, who opposes the streetcar project, and the new City Council take office in December.
Ryan Messer, a lead organizer of the effort to save the streetcar, spoke about the advantages of the streetcar project for much of the event. "This is a good economic tool that helps all of Cincinnati," he repeatedly stated.
Supporters have some empirical evidence to base their claims on. A 2007 study from consulting firm HDR found the streetcar project would generate a 2.7-to-1 return on investment over 35 years. The HDR study was later evaluated and supported by the University of Cincinnati.
Project executive John Deatrick acknowledges the 2007 study is now outdated and the city is working on updating the numbers. But he says the streetcar project is supposed to be viewed as an economic development vehicle, not just another transit option.
Supporters also warned of the potential costs of canceling the streetcar project. Hours before the gathering, Mayor Mark Mallory released a letter from the Federal Transit Administration that explicitly stated the city would lose nearly $41 million in federal grant dollars if the project were canceled, and another $4 million would be placed in the hands of Gov. John Kasich to do as he sees fit.
City spokesperson Meg Olberding previously told CityBeat that the city already spent about $2 million of the federal funds. If the project were canceled, she says the money would have to be repaid through the operating budget that funds police, firefighters and human services instead of the capital budget currently financing the streetcar project.
The operating budget has been structurally imbalanced since 2001, so adding millions in costs to it could force the city to cut services or raise taxes.
The FTA letter might already be playing an influence for at least one of the swing votes on City Council. On the elevator ride up to Mercantile Library, Sittenfeld told Seelbach and CityBeat, "I will say that today's news is a big gain in the pro-streetcar column."
Another threat for the city is potential litigation from contractors, subcontractors, taxpayers and Over-the-Rhine residents and businesses who invested in the project or along the streetcar line with the expectation that the project would be completed.
Litigation costs would also come out of the operating budget, according to Olberding.
"As a trial lawyer, this is actually appealing," said Democratic attorney Don Mooney. "For the city, not so much."
Supporters also outlined the potential damage that pulling from the project could do to the city's image, given that developers, businesses and the federal government have put their support and dollars toward the streetcar.
"Is Cincinnati that city that will dine you and wine you and leave you alone at the altar?" Young asked.
But if the lobbying effort, cancellation costs and threat of litigation aren't enough, supporters also presented one more option to save the streetcar: a ballot initiative. Mayor-elect John Cranley on Thursday told The Cincinnati Enquirer that he would be open to allowing some sort of streetcar referendum on the ballot.
The ultimate goal for supporters of the streetcar, beyond ensuring sustainable growth in the urban core, is to connect all of Cincinnati through a vast transit network, much like the streetcar lines that ran through Cincinnati before the city government dismantled the old system in the 1950s.
That provides little assurance to opponents of the streetcar project. Cranley and at least three hard-liners in the incoming City Council — Amy Murray, Charlie Winburn and Christopher Smitherman — claim the project is too expensive and the wrong priority for Cincinnati. Discussing more phases makes the project appear even costlier to opponents who are already concerned with costs.
In its comprehensive plan for 2040, the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments put the cost of various extensions — to the University of Cincinnati and surrounding hospitals, the Cincinnati Zoo, the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Broadway Commons area near the Horseshoe Casino — at more than $191 million, or $58 million more than the estimated cost for the current phase.
But if Cincinnati never completes the first phase of the streetcar project, supporters say it could be decades before other light rail options are considered.
The MLK/I-71 Interchange project is supposed to be funded through the city’s parking plan, but mayoral candidate John Cranley, who opposes the parking plan and streetcar, says the city should instead use federal funding that was originally intended for the streetcar project.
Between 2010 and 2011, the streetcar project was awarded about $40 million in federal grants — nearly $25 million through
the Urban Circulator Grant, $4 million through the Congestion Mitigation
and Air Quality (CMAQ) Grant and nearly $11 million through TIGER 3.
The grants are highly competitive and allocated to certain
projects. In the case of Cincinnati, the grants were specifically
awarded to the streetcar after it was thoroughly vetted as a transit, not highway, project.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) website explains why the Urban Circulator Grant is only meant for transit projects like the streetcar: “Urban circulator systems such as streetcars and rubber-tire trolley lines provide a transportation option that connects urban destinations and foster the redevelopment of urban spaces into walkable mixed-use, high-density environments.”
The CMAQ Grant’s main goal is to fund projects that curtail congestion and pollution, with an emphasis on transit projects, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The website explains, “Eligible activities include transit improvements, travel demand management strategies, traffic flow improvements and public fleet conversions to cleaner fuels, among others.”
The DOT website says TIGER 3 money could go to a highway project, but one of the program’s goals is promoting “livability,” which is defined as, “Fostering livable communities through place-based policies and investments that increase transportation choices and access to transportation services for people in communities across the United States.” TIGER 3 is also described as highly competitive by the DOT, so only a few programs get a chance at the money.When asked about the grants’ limitations, Cranley said, “I believe … the speaker of the house, the senator, the congressman, the governor and the mayor could petition and get that changed. Just because that may have been the way they set the grants in the first place doesn’t mean they can’t change it.”
The parking plan would lease Cincinnati’s parking assets to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority and allocate a portion of the raised funds — $20 million — to the MLK/I-71 Interchange project, but the plan is currently being held up by a lawsuit seeking to enable a referendum.
The streetcar is one of the few issues in which Cranley and Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, a streetcar supporter who is also running for mayor, are in stark contrast (“Back on the Ballot,” issue of Jan. 23).
Cranley’s opponents recently accused him of originally supporting the streetcar when he was a council member through two 2008 City Council motions, but Cranley says those motions, which he co-sponsored, only asked the city administration to study the merits of a streetcar plan, not approve of it. Cranley voted no on the first streetcar resolution in October 2007 and the motion to actually build the streetcar in April 2008.
“I’ve never said that I’m against the (streetcar) concept in all circumstances,” Cranley says. “I wanted to know if there was a way that they could pay for it in a way that wouldn’t take away from what I thought were more important priorities.”
Mayor Mark Mallory is working to thwart an effort by Cincinnati’s own U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) to prevent federal funding from being used to construct a streetcar in the city. Chabot offered an amendment on June 27 to the 2013 Transportation and Housing Urban Development spending bill that would bar federal transportation money from being used to design, construct or operate a “fixed guideway” project in Cincinnati.
Mallory called Chabot’s move “nothing but a political stunt.” Mallory today said in a press release that he is reaching out to legislative leaders in both the U.S. House and Senate to remove the amendment. Mallory said he’s also making calls to the White House.
“Steve Chabot seems determined to stop progress in Cincinnati,” Mallory said in the release. “He seems determined to make sure that other parts of the country thrive, while Cincinnati is left in the past. That is not the kind of leadership that we need in Washington, D.C..”
The city has procured a $25 million federal Urban Circulator Grant. That funding would not be jeopardized, as the Chabot amendment would only apply to federal funding for fiscal year 2013.
The U.S. House approved the amendment on a voice vote. To become law, it would have to be passed by the Senate and signed by the president.
“Far from a necessity, the Cincinnati streetcar is a luxury project that our nation and our region simply cannot afford,” Chabot said during testimony on the House floor.
Some opponents of the amendment worry that it could prevent funding for other transportation as well.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, fixed guideway refers to any transit service that uses exclusive or controlled rights-of-way. That means the ban on federal funding to those modes of transportation could apply to ferryboats, designated bus or carpool lanes and aerial tramways in addition to streetcars.
Chabot’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. (Andy Brownfield)
Although the current leader of the NAACP's local chapter is trying to block Cincinnati's planned streetcar system, two former leaders of the organization are coming out in support of the system in a big way.
Milton W. Hinton and Judge Nathaniel R. Jones have endorsed a “no” vote on Issue 48, the proposed anti-rail charter amendment that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot in Cincinnati.
In short, the statement claims that Cincinnati is trying to force Blue Ash into rescinding the sale of the Blue Ash Airport so a new deal can be worked that will funnel the sale money into the streetcar.
The real story behind the sale of the Blue Ash Airport is not as scandalous as COAST portrays. Some background: In 2006, the city of Blue Ash agreed to a deal with the city of Cincinnati to buy out 130 of 228 acres owned by Cincinnati at the Blue Ash Airport. Blue Ash would pay Cincinnati $37.5 million over 30 years, Cincinnati would move the airport to the adjacent 98 acres and Blue Ash would build a central park on the 130 acres.
The deal was approved by Blue Ash voters in a two-to-one margin with a related 0.25 percent earnings tax to fund the new park.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go exactly as planned. As part of the deal, Cincinnati had to apply for a $10 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The expectation was that Cincinnati would get this grant, making the cost of moving and maintaining the airport sustainable. But Cincinnati did not get that grant, and it has since decided to close the airport to save money.
This is where it gets tricky. Under federal law, since the land was sold as an airport, the money gained from the sale must be used on airports. That severely limits how Cincinnati can use the sale money.
What Cincinnati wants to do is have Blue Ash rescind the original sale and then officially close down the airport before re-selling the land to Blue Ash. This would let Cincinnati sell the land when it’s not classified as an airport, which would let Cincinnati use the $37.5 million in sale money on non-airport projects. Cincinnati has said $11 million of that freed-up money would go to the streetcar, and $26 million would go to municipal projects.
Everyone wins here. Cincinnati shuts down an airport that is no
longer affordable, money is freed up for other projects and Blue Ash is
a good neighbor and doesn’t lose anything. It still gets the park its voters want and pays the same amount for the property.
Well, not according to COAST. Even though less than one-third of the money is going to the streetcar, COAST insists Blue Ash is getting screwed in the deal so Cincinnati can fund the streetcar. The organization claims the new deal will result in “Blue Ash’s pockets” being “picked” for streetcar funds.
But Blue Ash is not paying for the streetcar. It is paying for the 130 acres of land to build a park. It has been paying for that land for more than five years now. What Cincinnati does with the money from the sale is of little relevance to Blue Ash.
That hasn’t stopped COAST from doing its very best to link the deal to the streetcar. After all, when something is remotely related to the streetcar, it’s a sure bet COAST will be there, trying to “hold the line” against the project, which the organization sees as wasteful spending.
That’s where irony comes in. The organization is adamantly against any new spending and taxes. That is its basic purpose. But in this case, the organization is so blinded by its disapproval of the streetcar that it is actually opposing a deal that saves Cincinnati money. By freeing up $37.5 million in funds and closing down the airport, Cincinnati is stopping unnecessary spending and gaining a new, temporary revenue stream. That will let the city continue funding other projects without higher taxes or raising overall spending.
In other words, the deal is doing the exact kind of thing COAST promotes. But if there’s anything COAST is more determined to stop than extra spending and higher taxes, it’s the streetcar. Screw any principles and standards. If something is slightly related to the streetcar, COAST will be there to oppose it.
That’s why COAST’s Twitter feed is filled with these kind
of petty retweets (from @GOCOAST): “Coming soon to Cincinnati. RT @lzzbott:
Got punched in the back and five dollars stolen from me at the trolley
This kind of flimsy connection is how the organization opposes the streetcar.
COAST says it is not alone in its opposition. In the Blue Ash Airport statement, the organization claimed that the City Council’s streetcar “boondoggle” has been blocked at “every turn,” citing the pulling of funds by Gov. John Kasich, Hamilton County commissioners Chris Monzel and Greg Hartman and Congressman Steve Chabot.
The statement leaves out one important group of people that has approved the streetcar: Cincinnatians. Just like the park deal was approved by Blue Ash voters, Cincinnati voters have approved the streetcar twice — once in 2009 and most recently in 2011.
For an organization that claims to want to protect taxpayer money, COAST seems out of touch with the proven interests of taxpayers in both Blue Ash and Cincinnati.
A review of the fine print in Ohio law could spell trouble for Duke Energy in its dispute with Cincinnati about who must pay to move utility lines to accommodate the city’s streetcar project.
Readers of CityBeat’s March 6 cover story know that one of the legal arguments made by Duke Energy is that it said the system qualifies as a utility itself under Ohio law. And one utility has no legal obligation to reimburse another utility, Duke added.
City officials disagree with Duke’s interpretation, and the two sides currently are trying to negotiate a compromise to the impasse.
The city is willing to pay $6 million to relocate Duke’s natural gas, chilled water, fiber and electrical infrastructure along the streetcar route, but the firm insists it will cost at least $18.7 million and possibly more.
A close reading of the Ohio Revised Code (ORC), however, reveals it is unlikely that a streetcar system qualifies as a “public utility.”
Under Ohio law, the following items are defined as public utilities:
“A motor transportation company, when engaged in the business of carrying and transporting persons or property or the business of providing or furnishing such transportation service, for hire, in or by motor-propelled vehicles of any kind, including trailers, for the public in general, over any public street, road, or highway in this state.” ORC §4905.03
But motor-propelled vehicles aren’t defined under Ohio law. The ORC does, however, define “motor vehicle” as:
“(B) “Motor vehicle” means any vehicle, including mobile homes and recreational vehicles, that is propelled or drawn by power other
than muscular power or power collected from overhead electric trolley wires.
“Motor vehicle” does not include utility vehicles as defined in division (VV)
of this section, motorized bicycles, road rollers, traction engines, power
shovels, power cranes, and other equipment used in construction work and not
designed for or employed in general highway transportation, well-drilling
machinery, ditch-digging machinery, farm machinery, and trailers that are
designed and used exclusively to transport a boat between a place of storage
and a marina, or in and around a marina, when drawn or towed on a public road
or highway for a distance of no more than ten miles and at a speed of
twenty-five miles per hour or less.” ORC
“(B) “Motor vehicle” means any vehicle, including mobile homes and recreational vehicles, that is propelled or drawn by power other than muscular power or power collected from overhead electric trolley wires. “Motor vehicle” does not include utility vehicles as defined in division (VV) of this section, motorized bicycles, road rollers, traction engines, power shovels, power cranes, and other equipment used in construction work and not designed for or employed in general highway transportation, well-drilling machinery, ditch-digging machinery, farm machinery, and trailers that are designed and used exclusively to transport a boat between a place of storage and a marina, or in and around a marina, when drawn or towed on a public road or highway for a distance of no more than ten miles and at a speed of twenty-five miles per hour or less.” ORC §4501.01(B)
Streetcars operate using overhead trolley wires, thus they aren’t considered motor vehicles under Ohio law. But do they even qualify as vehicles? The ORC defines vehicles as:
“(A) “Vehicles” means everything on wheels or runners, including motorized bicycles, but does not mean electric personal assistive mobility devices, vehicles that are operated exclusively on rails or tracks or from overhead electric trolley wires, and vehicles that belong to any police department, municipal fire department, or volunteer fire department, or that are used by such a department in the discharge of its functions.” ORC §4501.01(A)
Of course, streetcars run on rails and use power from electric
trolley wires. So, they aren’t vehicles either. The conclusion: Either “motor-propelled vehicles” mean the same as “motor
vehicles” (in which case it doesn’t apply to streetcars) or “motor-propelled”
is an adjective to “vehicle” (which also doesn’t apply, as streetcars aren’t
vehicles). In each instance, a streetcar system doesn’t fall into the legal realm of a “motor transportation company” and therefore isn’t a “public utility.”
Of course, streetcars run on rails and use power from electric trolley wires. So, they aren’t vehicles either.
The conclusion: Either “motor-propelled vehicles” mean the same as “motor vehicles” (in which case it doesn’t apply to streetcars) or “motor-propelled” is an adjective to “vehicle” (which also doesn’t apply, as streetcars aren’t vehicles).
In each instance, a streetcar system doesn’t fall into the legal realm of a “motor transportation company” and therefore isn’t a “public utility.”
In the past few days, local media outlets have reported heavily on a supposed conflict between Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) and the city of Cincinnati. Essentially, SORTA wants the transit fund limited, while the city government says it doesn’t want to “undermine the city charter” with limitations.
At its heart, the argument is a political back-and-forth with little consequence. It’s two government agencies at a small divide over legalese in an intergovernmental agreement about how the streetcar will operate and how it will be funded.
The specific issue is SORTA, which runs the Metro bus
system and will operate the streetcar, wants to include phrasing in its
agreement with the city that makes it so the transit fund can’t be used
for the streetcar. In a 7-6 vote Tuesday, SORTA's board pushed its preferred wording along with an application for an $11 million federal grant that will help fund the streetcar.
But the city government claims the limitation would go against the spirit of the city charter, which says the transit fund can be used for “public transit purposes generally and without limitation.”
UPDATE: City Council on Wednesday passed a resolution promising not to use Metro bus money on the streetcar, although it has no legal standing preventing council from later coming back and using transit funds for the streetcar.
Still, Mayor Mark Mallory’s office has insisted time and time again that funding for the streetcar’s construction and operation is already allocated, so taking any money from the transit fund will be unnecessary. Specifically, the city will tap into casino revenue to operate the streetcar, on top of the $11 million federal grant.
In an op-ed for The Cincinnati Enquirer Monday, Mallory said the real issue goes back to an ongoing lawsuit between SORTA and the city. In 2010, the city diverted money from the transit fund to pay for street lights. That prompted a lawsuit from SORTA, asking the courts to define the limits of the transit fund.
The mayor’s office sees the wording from SORTA as an attempt from the transit agency to score a minor victory in the legal battle. If the city government accepted the wording, it would be agreeing to a limited transit fund, which is essentially what SORTA wants.
SORTA’s wording also makes it so all transit fund money will continue going to the Metro bus system, which is the agency’s sole service today.
But even SORTA says the disagreement is getting blown out of proportion by media outlets and public officials. Sallie Hilvers, spokesperson for SORTA, says the wording in the approved agreement was the board’s attempt to ensure the transit fund isn’t used for the streetcar, but, for the most part, it’s “really just procedures.”
Hilvers insisted the disagreement over wording has plenty
of time to be worked out, and it will not hinder collaboration between
the city of Cincinnati and SORTA.
The agreement will need to be worked out before summer 2013 for the streetcar to stay on track.