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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After the meeting, Cranley dismissed an offer by major philanthropy organization The Carol
Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation to pay for a study of
streetcar shut-down costs that opponents want to see
come in lower than the
city’s estimates before they vote to completely stop the project. Cranley dismissed
the offer because it also came with a note saying that if the streetcar is canceled the foundation will
reconsider its contributions to Music
Hall, the Smale Riverfront Park and other city projects. Cranley would rather make the city pay for the study than negotiate with terrorists respond to threats.
About seven and a half hours into this debacle of American democracy — which included numerous procedural abnormalities including the mayor asking Council to discuss and vote on ordinances no one had read yet, an hours-long delay and a funding appropriation that leaves the cancellation vote safe from the pro-streetcar-threatened voter referendum (something Cranley railed against when the city administration kept the parking plan safe from referendum) — Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld livened things up with something everyone tired of the streetcar debate can agree is funny: undermining the mayor’s authority by asking fellow council members to overrule him.
The following video published by UrbanCincy shows Cranley denying Sittenfeld an opportunity to speak. Sittenfeld then asks for a vote to overrule Cranley, which the mayor had to approve, and everyone but Kevin Flynn votes to overrule. (Flynn unfortunately had to vote first, leaving him unable to determine which way the vote was likely to go — a tough position for a rookie politician.) Once David Mann and Amy Murray voted to allow Sittenfeld to speak, the rest of the anti-streetcar faction followed suit, knowing Sittenfeld had the necessary votes to overrule Cranley. Then Sittenfeld spent a few minutes going mayoral on Cincinnati's new mayor.
That means the city could potentially spend more than 94 percent of the project’s total costs before it manages to fully close down the streetcar project, which is currently undergoing construction and tied up to various federal grants and business contracts.
The presentation was given in advance of Mayor-elect John Cranley and the newly elected City Council taking office in December. Cranley is an ardent opponent of the streetcar project, and a majority of the City Council says it wants to pause the project and consider cancellation.
Cranley’s proposed alternative to the streetcar — a trolley bus system
— would cost $10-$15 million in capital funds, according to supporters of the rubber-tire trolley alternative. If streetcar cancellation costs were to reach the high end of the city’s estimate and the trolley bus is paid for, the city could end up spending $140.3 million to cancel the streetcar project and build a
considerably less ambitious trolley bus line — about $7.5 million more
than it would cost to simply complete the streetcar project.
If it’s completed, Cincinnati Budget Director Lea Eriksen says operating the streetcar would cost between $3.4-$4.5 million each year, which city officials say could come from various potential sources, including a special improvement district that would raise property taxes within three blocks of the streetcar route.
But the operating budget cost would be a wash if Cranley pursues the trolley bus system, which, according to advocates, will cost slightly more to operate than the streetcar. Cranley says the operating cost for the trolley bus is concerning if it holds true.
Following Deatrick’s presentation, Cranley held a press conference in which he flatly denied the current city administration’s estimates. He says he will tap new experts to run over the numbers while the project is put on pause.
“We’re going to bring in new, objective leadership, not the current leadership that is clearly biased toward the project and intent on defying the will of the voters, which was clearly expressed a couple weeks ago in this election,” Cranley says.
Deatrick’s cancellation projections account for $32.8 million in estimated sunk costs through November and a potential range of $30.6-$47.6 million in close-out costs, which include construction to close the project — such as repaving torn-up roads — and orders on vehicles and other supplies that are already placed but not officially billed.
The federal government has also allocated $44.9 million in federal grants to the streetcar project. In a letter released by the city administration on Nov. 14, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) explicitly stated that $40.9 million would be taken back if the project didn’t adequately progress; the remaining $4 million would be left under the supervision of Gov. John Kasich, who could shift the money to other parts of the state.
But Deatrick’s estimates don’t consider the unknown cost of litigation, which would need to come out of a city operating budget that is already structurally imbalanced, according to Meg Olberding, the city’s spokesperson.
The estimates also don’t consider that the city could potentially forgo spending $7.4 million in contingency funds on the project if it goes through completion and remains within budget, which would lower the project’s effective cost to $125.4 million.
If the city cancels the project, Deatrick says it’s also more likely that the city would lose in its legal battle against Duke Energy, which could add up to $15 million in costs. That money is tentatively allocated from the sale of the Blue Ash Airport as the city and Duke argue in court as to who has to pay for moving utility lines to accommodate for the streetcar tracks.
Those are the potential financial costs, but city officials also warn that canceling the project could have a detrimental impact on the city’s image.
“That’s what the city would be known for forever,” says Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan. “To throw this away would be unconscionable.”
City officials also warn that canceling would be pulling back on a light rail project that President Barack Obama’s administration has clearly prioritized.
“The city-federal relationship is excellent right now,” Deatrick says. “There would be immediate damage to that.”
The 200-plus workers currently involved the project would also be displaced. Councilwoman Yvette Simpson points out pausing or canceling the project in December would leave those workers jobless for the holiday season.
Another concern is the impact of cancellation on the relationship between the federal government and Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), which operates the Metro bus system and will operate the streetcar if it’s completed. If the city is unable to pay back the grants to the federal government within 30 days, Deatrick says the FTA could cut SORTA grants for bus service and potentially halt some local bus services.
One concern raised by Councilman Chris Seelbach and Councilman-elect Kevin Flynn, one of the three potential swing votes in the incoming council of nine, is whether the project’s estimated return on investment is still 2.7-to-1 over 35 years. That number is derived from a 2007 study conducted by consulting firm HDR, which was later evaluated and affirmed by the University of Cincinnati.
Deatrick points out the numbers were re-evaluated by HDR in 2011, and they still seem to hold true. He says there are still plenty of vacant buildings along the 3.6-mile streetcar line that could use the encouraged investment, despite some of the revitalization seen in the Over-the-Rhine and downtown areas that the streetcar route would cover.
The 2.7-to-1 return on investment is also “a very, very conservative estimate,” says Deatrick. He claims HDR could have relied on numbers from other cities, such as Portland, Ore., that saw considerably better returns on their streetcar systems.
Still, Flynn and Councilman-elect David Mann, another potential swing vote, say they want to scrutinize the cancellation estimates before making a final decision on the project.
Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, a long-time streetcar supporter who lost to Cranley in her mayoral bid, encourages a re-examination of the numbers. But she cautions, “If what has been presented today stands up to scrutiny, there’s absolutely no reason to cancel the project.”
Flynn won’t say whether he would reconsider his past opposition to the project if the numbers hold up. But Mann says, “If they do hold up, that’s fairly persuasive.”
Both Flynn and Mann also say that they would be willing to pause the project while clearer estimates are crunched.
But that could present a short time window. If the project doesn’t adequately progress, the federal government could take back its grant money. Based on city officials’ estimates, that provides a 30-day window to re-calculate cancellation costs and the potential return on investment.
Pausing the project would also impose its own set of costs as some workers and equipment are retained.
Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who’s also seen as a swing vote, could not be reached for comment. He’s currently in Washington, D.C., to meet with White House officials for an issue unrelated to the streetcar.
Three elected council members already support the streetcar project, so only two of the three potential swing votes would need to vote in favor of it to keep it going.
Updated with Mayor-elect John Cranley’s comments and clearer, corrected numbers.