Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld on Monday announced he will vote to continue the $132.8 million streetcar project.
Sittenfeld’s support for the project means the incoming City Council might not have the six votes required for an emergency clause that would immediately halt the project and make a cancellation vote insusceptible to referendum.
If streetcar supporters successfully put a cancellation vote to referendum, the project would be forced to continue until the streetcar once again appears on the ballot in November 2014. The continuation would sink more costs into the project as construction is forced to progress for nearly a year.
Sittenfeld’s announcement preceded a vote from the outgoing City Council to officially write the streetcar project into law, which means Mayor-elect John Cranley, a streetcar opponent, won’t be able to take administrative action to halt the project and instead must bring the project to a City Council vote after he and other newly elected officials take office on Sunday.
The two remaining swing votes in the incoming council — David Mann, who Cranley on Monday named as his choice for vice mayor, and Kevin Flynn — previously discussed delaying the project as council analyzes whether it should permanently cancel or continue with currently ongoing construction.
But Sittenfeld equated a delay to total cancellation after warnings from the federal government made it clear that the city could lose federal funds for the project even if it only delayed progress.
If either Flynn or Mann move to support the streetcar project, streetcar proponents would gain a five-vote majority on the nine-member council to continue the project and preclude a referendum.
Sittenfeld characterized his decision as the better of “two bad choices.”
“We can pursue a project that has never earned broad public consensus and that has yet to offer a viable and sustainable budget,” he said at a press conference, “or we can scrub the project and throw away tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money, forgo a massive federal investment and have nothing to show for the enormous effort and expense.”
To explain his decision, Sittenfeld cited concerns about how much money has been dedicated to the project at this point, including $32.8 million in sunk costs through November and a potential range of $30.6-$47.6 million in close-out costs, according to estimates from the city. Sittenfeld noted that, at the very least, half of the city’s $87.9 million share of the project will be spent even if the city pulls the plug now.
Sittenfeld also voiced concerns that pulling back from the project and effectively forfeiting $44.9 million in allocated federal funds would damage Cincinnati’s reputation with the federal government. That could hamper projects he sees as much more important, such as the $2.5 billion Brent Spence Bridge project.
“I did my part to avoid getting us into this reality, but it cannot be wished away,” Sittenfeld said.
There was one major caveat to Sittenfeld’s decision: the operating costs for the streetcar, which the city estimates at $3.4-$4.5 million a year.
Sittenfeld said the cost must not hit Cincinnati’s already-strained operating budget and instead must be paid through fares, sponsorships, private contributions and a special improvement district that would raise property taxes near the streetcar line.
A special improvement district would require a petitioning process in which property owners holding at least 60 percent of property frontage near the streetcar line would have to sign in favor of taking on higher property taxes to pay for the streetcar.
“Ultimately, that’s a decision for the citizens,” Sittenfeld said.
If the special improvement district doesn’t come to fruition, Sittenfeld cautioned that the streetcar project would be more difficult to support going forward.
Asked whether Sittenfeld thinks some of the people who voted for him will see his decision as a betrayal, he responded that his conclusion shows the “thoughtfulness and carefulness” people expect of him when it comes to taxpayer dollars, given the costs of cancellation.
In June, City Council approved an extra $17.4 million and
accountability measures for the streetcar project, which require the city manager to publicly update council with a timeline of key milestones, performance measures, an
operating plan, staffing assessments and monthly progress reports.
During discussions for
the funding and accountability proposals, some council members, particularly Councilman P.G.
Sittenfeld, raised concerns that Messer would require more money than
the city could afford. Sittenfeld said he was especially concerned Messer would have all the leverage going forward, considering the city supposedly needed the lower construction bid to keep the project within its new budget.
Messer was the lowest bidder for the project’s construction work, but even that bid came $26 million higher than the city’s original estimates, forcing the city to close a budget gap if the project was to continue.
With the construction bids taken care of, the only known funding concern for the streetcar is who has to pay $15 million for moving utility lines to accommodate for streetcar tracks. Duke Energy argues the cost burden is on the city, while the city says the energy company has to pay up. The issue is currently being decided in court.
Ever since Cincinnati began pursuing the streetcar project, it’s been mired in misrepresentations and political controversy, which CityBeat covered in further detail in this week’s cover story.
Meg Olberding, city spokesperson, attributes the delay to “a number of scheduling issues.”
“There’s so many moving pieces,” she says. “There are issues with utility and we have to order the cars. We have to get a contractor on-board for the work. So we still have a couple of things that are taking longer than we thought.”
The delay, which was announced Sept. 10, is
the latest in a history of plan and schedule changes for the Cincinnati
streetcar, which saw $52 million pulled by Gov. John Kasich last year and forced
the city to abandon its Uptown connector lines. Kasich, who has been against other rail projects in the state, claimed the move was necessary to balance the 2012-2013 budget.
Today, a feud between the city and Duke Energy is causing more trouble. The city and utility company disagree over who should pay for moving utility lines to accommodate the streetcar. On Aug. 29, the city said it was considering a lawsuit to resolve the issue. Olberding says the conflict played a role in the delay.
“We need to resolve that quickly because, obviously, the longer we can’t get utility work done, it’ll cause delays and cost overruns,” she says. “So we want to get that done as soon as possible.”
Before the current spat, the city and Duke could not agree on whether manhole covers and utility lines should be eight feet from streetcar tracks or three to four feet. The city claimed the smaller number was fine, but Duke disagreed, citing fears for its workers. In a previous look at the issue, CityBeat found the city’s standard was supported by experiences in other cities (“The Great Eight Debate,” issue of March 6). The city eventually won out, and manholes will only be required to be three to four feet from streetcar tracks.
The streetcar has faced consistent opposition from other Republicans besides Kasich. U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot of Cincinnati successfully amended the 2013 transportation bill to ban federal funding from going to the streetcar and other light rail projects. Councilman Charlie Winburn, the lone Republican on Cincinnati City Council, said the city should stop its threat of lawsuit against Duke Energy.
Somewhat of an agreement, anyway. Mallory said that the city and Duke will go before a judge in Common Pleas court, who will make the final decision as to who should pay for the utility relocation. According to the agreement, Duke Energy will begin moving its utilities in the next few weeks, and the court decision will determine cost responsibility later. The city and Duke are expected to file in Common Pleas court within the next few weeks, although the court decision could take years to finalize.
Roxanne Qualls, city council member and Democratic mayoral candidate, has long been a supporter of the streetcar project, which she values as an indispensable economic investment for the city of Cincinnati. Yesterday, Qualls announced her request for the city to ramp up the streetcar construction timeline in order to have the project completed in time for the All-Star Games, which will take place in Cincinnati July 2015. Her announcement came just weeks after the city revised its timetable to delay project completion until April 2016.
In a letter from Qualls to Mallory and Dohoney, she explains: “This may present a
challenge, but it is one I am sure the administration is capable of
meeting. The streetcar will serve a critical role in efficiently and
effectively moving visitors to and from Great American Ballpark and
allowing them to conveniently visit other venues such as Fountain
Square, Horseshoe Casino, Over-the-Rhine, Washington Park, etc.”
At the meeting, Mallory announced that the city would shoot for construction to be completed prior to the games, but there were no guarantees. The streetcar builder will ultimately set the timeline for the project, according to Jason Barron, Mallory's director of public affairs.
CityBeat recently covered the streetcar project's delays and how the 2013 mayoral race could affect its progress here.
Cincinnati would save just $7.8-$52.6 million in capital costs if it incurs tens of millions in additional expenditures to cancel the $132.8 million streetcar project, according to an audit from consulting firm KPMG released Wednesday.
By showing the potentially high costs of cancellation, the numbers could throw a lifeline to the streetcar project just one day before City Council decides whether to restart construction or permanently halt the project.
But Mayor John Cranley appears undeterred in his commitment to cancel the streetcar project. By accounting for the annual costs to operate the streetcar, Cranley estimates the city will actually save $102 million if it cancels the project.
The city already spent roughly $34 million on the project, according to the audit. Cancellation would add $16.3-$46.1 million in close-out costs, bringing the total costs of cancellation and money spent so far to $50.3-$80.1 million.
Completing the project would add $68.9 million in costs, after deducting $40.9 million in remaining federal grants, the audit found.
But the completion estimate assumes the city will need to pay $15 million in utility work — a cost that is currently being debated in court. If the city wins its case against Duke Energy, the utility company would be required to pay the $15 million and bring down the total completion costs to $53.9 million.
The audit also put the costs of operating the streetcar at $3.13-$3.54 million a year, lower than the previous $3.4-$4.5 million estimate. After revenues from fares, sponsorships and other sources, the city would need to pay $1.88-$2.44 million to operate the streetcar, according to the audit.
The reduced estimate for operating costs could become particularly important in deciding the project's fate as private contributors attempt to get the cost off the city's operating budget.
Delaying the streetcar project while KPMG conducted its audit also added $1.7-$2.8 million in costs, according to the audit. The city allocated another $250,000 to pay KPMG for its work.
The audit did not account for the potential costs of litigation if contractors and investors along the planned streetcar line sue the city to recoup costs.
City Council paused the streetcar project on Dec. 4 to obtain the cost estimates of completion, cancellation and annual operations. The full body of council will decide whether to restart the project on Thursday, before a Friday deadline set by the Federal Transit Administration for federal grants.
Read the full audit:
This post was updated at 12:59 p.m. with more information and details.
In hopes of quashing rumors, City Council on Wednesday passed a resolution promising not to use Metro bus money on the streetcar.
The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit authority had voted Tuesday on an agreement with the city that contained a provision saying money from the $42 million transit fund that pays for bus operation can’t be used on the streetcar.
The agreement needs to be signed by the city as well in order to release millions of dollars in federal grants to help fund the streetcar. The city has pledged to match those grants with local funds. SORTA wants to make sure the transit fund isn’t used for that purpose, but the city wants to have the freedom to use that money on any transportation project.
At least one council member questioned the necessity of passing the resolution.
Chris Seelbach said that nobody on council or in the city administration had proposed or would propose using transit money on the streetcar.
“I don’t understand why we would need a provision in any contract that would make us not be able to, when nobody’s proposing that we do it,” he said.
The resolution has no legal standing preventing council from later coming back and using transit funds for the streetcar, but Qualls said she hoped it put citizens’ minds at rest regarding their intentions.
Mayor Mark Mallory on Monday published an editorial in The Enquirer promising that the transit money wouldn’t be used for the streetcar.
He went further on Wednesday and said during council’s meeting that he as mayor would never approve the use of transit money for the operation of the streetcar.
Council also passed a one-month budget for SORTA, requiring that they come back next month to pass another one.
Councilman Chris Smitherman accused Mallory of trying to flex political muscle in the budget to strong-arm SORTA into taking out the provision disallowing the use of transit funds for the streetcar. He questioned the timing of passing a SORTA budget the day after the transit authority voted to prevent transit funds being used for the streetcar.
Councilman Charlie Winburn — council's sole Republican — walked out of a Budget Committee meeting in advance of the vote.
However Councilwoman Yvette Simpson said it made sense to pass the one-month budget because it forbid SORTA from using taxpayer money to sue the city.
City Solicitor John Curp said it was SORTA’s position in the lawsuit that it should be the one deciding how transit funds are used, not the city.
New details regarding the Blue Ash Airport deal have found that Blue Ash will gain $2.25 million from the deal. The new details means both Blue Ash and Cincinnati benefit from the deal by having extra funds, potentially benefiting budgets without having to make cuts or running to taxpayers for more money. The number also puts a damper on COAST’s campaign to stop the new deal, which is spurred by their extreme disapproval of all things streetcar.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted yesterday directed county boards of election to set uniform in-person early voting hours. Before the decision, Democrats were accusing state Republicans of extending early voting hours in predominantly Republican districts and keeping early voting hours shorter in predominantly Democratic districts. However, Democrats are still not pleased by the new directive because they claim it’s limiting voting hours.
Supporters of redistricting reform now have a ballot issue to get behind: Issue 2. Issue 2 is the redistricting amendment supported by Voters First. If voters accept Issue 2, the redistricting process will be placed in the hands of an independent citizens commission that will be void of lobbyists and politicians. If voters reject Issue 2, the process will continue being placed in the hands of politicians, who have abused the system in a process known as “gerrymandering” to redraw districts in politically beneficial ways. In the latest redistricting process, the Republican-controlled committee redrew Cincinnati’s district to include Warren County, giving Republicans more voters in the district. CityBeat previously covered the redistricting issue at length here.
Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) are adjusting to new, tougher academic standards. CPS Superintendent Mary Ronan says schools will have to develop new methods of teaching and learning to comply with the academic standards.Democrats and Republicans clashed in court yesterday as they argued over Ohio’s early voting rules. The debate focused on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before Election Day. Under current law, only military personnel and their families are allowed to vote on those days. The Democrats and President Barack Obama want everyone to be allowed to vote on those days, and Republicans do not. The judge said he will hold off on a decision.
Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick, was at Miami University yesterday. During his speech, Ryan did not shy away from bringing up the Medicare issue, and he claimed Obamacare will cut $716 billion. However, Ryan included the same cuts in his own budget plan, and they’re actually savings, not cuts. The architect of Obamacare also said recently that repealing Obamacare, which Romney and Ryan advocate, would cut benefits to seniors.
Two Hamilton County commissioners are running unopposed in what some suspect was part of a deal between Republicans and Democrats. Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Tim Burke says there was no deal.
U.S. House Republicans are freaking out over the Ryan pick. Apparently, they’re worried Democrats will bring
up the fact Ryan’s budget plan tried to end Medicare as most
Americans know it. House Speaker John Boehner tried to calm Republicans.
Scientists have discovered a galaxy that gives birth to more stars in a day than our galaxy does in a year.
Groundbreaking ceremonies for Cincinnati's long-awaited streetcar project will occur next Friday, Feb. 17, in front of Memorial Hall on Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine.
Mayor Mark Mallory announced the ceremony this afternoon. It will launch the first phase of construction, which involves relocating water lines under city streets.
Opening of the streetcar line’s first phase, a 3.9-mile loop between The Banks riverfront district and Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine, is scheduled for late 2013.
The FBI has been investigating the long-stalled Kenwood Towne Place development for the past year, and a grand jury will determine whether crimes were committed involving the improper use of funding for the project, according to The Enquirer. CityBeat on May 16 reported that Nathan Bachrach, host of local radio show Simply Money, was among those in heat over the development's debt.
The city of Cincinnati used eminent domain to secure a piece of Over-the-Rhine property to build its streetcar maintenance facility.
So, uh, Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan rewrote the lyrics to John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary” (“Rolin' on the River”) as part of a promotion for the World Choir Games. Celebrities such as Bootsy Collins, Nick Lachey and Jerry Springer participated. Cool? Awkward? The city does look pretty nice — shots were filmed at Fountain Square, Great American Ballpark, Findlay Market, the School for Creative and Performing Arts and the Serpentine Wall.
John Edwards is basically off the hook after jurors returned from nine days of deliberations believing that the government did not prove its case. Edwards was found guilty one one charge of accepting illegal campaign contributions to hide his pregnant mistress, but a mistrial was declared on five charges.
President Obama and Mitt Romney
reportedly spoke on the phone yesterday. Romney says they exchanged
pleasantries and congratulations. Obama apparently gave Romney some credit for his health care bill, which sounds kind of passive aggressive.
The nation's unemployment rate is up to 8.2 percent; apparently a third month of disappointing payroll led to the addition of only 69,000 jobs.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is being called “Nanny Bloomberg” in response to his proposed ban on extra large sodas by people such as 18-year-old Johnny Ojeda of Kansas City, who reportedly pounded a 21-ounce soda and its 240 calories in front of Kansas City Star reporters.
“A lot of teenagers get them,” said Ojeda,
On the other hand, today is National Donut Day.
And cancer is expected to increase worldwide by 75 percent by 2030, partly due to poor nations adopting unhealthy Westernized lifestyles.
DC Comics' Green Lantern is revealed to be gay in an issue that comes out next week. Green Lantern is one of the comics' oldest heroes and the latest in a growing number of out superheroes. From the San Jose Mercury News:
In May, Marvel Entertainment said super speedster Northstar will marry his longtime boyfriend in the pages of "Astonishing X-Men." DC comics has other gay characters, too, including Kate Kane, the current Batwoman.
And in the pages of Archie Comics, Kevin Keller is one of the gang at Riverdale High School and gay, too.
Some groups have protested the inclusion of gay characters, but Robinson isn't discouraged, noting that being gay is just one aspect to Scott.
"This guy, he's a media mogul, a hero, a dynamic type-A personality and he's gay," Robinson said. "He's a complex character."
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is proposing training school staff and teachers to be first responders in the case of an attack. The news comes in the wake of the massacre in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which caused the deaths of 20 children and six adults. CityBeat proposed its own solution in this week’s commentary: Make this time different by focusing on mental health services and gun control.
Cincinnati will lease Music Hall for 75 years to the Music Hall Revitalization Company (MHRC). The lease is part of a plan to renovate the iconic building to include more comfortable seating, extra restroom capacity, heating, air conditioning, improved plumbing and new escalator models. During the renovations, Music Hall will be closed for 17 months.
City Council passed a resolution promising not to use Metro bus money for the streetcar. The supposed conflict between the city of Cincinnati and the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) is being drummed up by the media, but it’s really much ado about nothing.
Metropolitan Sewer District rates will go up by 5 percent in early 2013.
The Cincinnati Health Department is pushing
recommendations from a lead hazard study. The recommendations would
prohibit lead-based paint hazards and require all properties to be free
of lead-based paint, dust and soil. City Council is asking the health
department to carry out the regulations, and it expects from a plan and
timetable from regulators within 60 days. One study found getting rid of lead would do wonders for school performance
A Brookings Institute ranking placed Greater Cincinnati among the worst areas in the country due to falling home prices.
Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank agreed to a $16 million settlement in a securities fraud case. The four-year-old lawsuit was brought in the onset of 2008’s financial crisis, when the bank’s stock plummeted as it took several large writedowns.
Cincinnati’s Horseshoe Casino still needs to fill 450 positions in food and beverage, marketing, finance, security and more. A Washington Post analysis found casinos tend to bring jobs, but they also bring crime, bankruptcy and even suicide.
As expected, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is helping Ohio’s economy. The state has 39,000 jobs attached to oil and gas this year, and the number is expected to triple by the end of the decade. To take advantage of the boom, Ohio Gov. John Kasich says he will push his oil-and-gas severance tax in 2013. But the plan faces opposition from liberals and conservatives.
If Ohio Republicans tried to push “right-to-work” legislation, it would lead to a very nasty public fight, The Plain Dealer reports. Kasich and Republican lawmakers didn’t rule out using ballot initiatives to push conservative ideas like right-to-work in a press conference yesterday, but he did say he’s like a horse with blinders on, focusing on job creation.
The animal and robot takeover have been merged in the BigDog robot. It can now obey voice commands, follow and roll over.