Cincinnati City Council plans to move $29 million in funds to avoid further delays for the streetcar
project, but the city is still looking at a 2015 opening date. City officials announced Wednesday that a council
committee will vote Monday on three pieces of legislation to keep the
$110 million project in line with the recently announced delayed opening.
One measure would front $15 million to help Duke Energy move underground utility lines from the path of the proposed streetcar route. That money comes from the recent $37 million sale of land near the former Blue Ash Airport.
The city thinks it will get this money back once a dispute with Duke is resolved. The city contends that Duke is responsible for moving the lines, which the utility estimates will cost $18.7 million. Duke counters that the lines only have to be moved because of the streetcar construction, so the city should foot the bill.
“We’re fronting money for the Duke work until we can work out who pays for it with Duke,” city spokeswoman Meg Oldberding said. “It’s to keep the project on time and on budget. Delays would escalate the cost.”
Another ordinance would change the municipal code to “confirm the city’s existing rights” and clarify that utilities pay for the cost of relocating facilities unless otherwise negotiated, according to a news release.
Oldberding said Cincinnati has always maintained that it is the utility’s responsibility to relocate their facilities, so it is not a change in the city’s position.
The final ordinance would change the funding source that is repaying $25 million in bonds sold as part of the original plan to fund the streetcar.
Those bonds were originally being repaid with money coming into city coffers from southern downtown and the riverfront area.
That area wasn’t bringing in as much cash as expected, so the ordinance would have $14 million of the bonds repaid from a 1995 fund set up to collect service payments from the Westin/Star, Hyatt and Saks.
Oldberding said once the downtown district rebounds — it includes the Banks and the casino — it would repay the other fund.
The ordinances would not add to the project’s cost. Construction is scheduled to begin early next year.
The latest batch of bad streetcar news provoked a harsh memo to the city manager’s office from Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, a Democrat who has long supported the $125 million transit project. In the memo, Qualls wrote about “serious concerns” regarding the project’s costs and timetable.
“Whether people support or oppose the streetcar project, everyone has a vested interest in getting the most for our public dollars and in having the highest confidence in the management of the project,” Qualls wrote. “While a council majority has continued to support the project, council has not given the administration a ‘blank check.’”
The memo suggested putting the streetcar project through “intensive value engineering” to bring the project’s budget and timetable back in line — preferably in time for the 2015 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
The memo is in response to streetcar construction bids coming in $26 million to $43 million over
budget. Meg Olberding, city spokesperson, says the bids leave the city with
two options: The city could take up the current bids, which could have their costs brought down upon further review, or the city could reject the
bids and rebid the project, which would cause delays. But Olberding also cautions that the administration is still working on fully reviewing the bids — a process that could take weeks or longer.
Qualls is running for mayor against John Cranley, a former Democratic council member. Cranley has been a vocal opponent of the streetcar project — creating a strong contrast between the two candidates that has placed the streetcar in the center of the 2013 mayoral race.
Earlier today, Cranley held a press conference asking the city to halt the streetcar project. In a statement, he argued it is “irresponsible” to continue work on the streetcar in light of the higher costs.
CityBeat previously covered the streetcar and how it relates to the race between Qualls and Cranley (“Back on the Ballot,” issue of Jan. 23).
Early voting for the 2013 City Council and mayoral elections is now underway. Find your voting location here. Normal voting hours will be 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., although some days will be extended.
Cincinnati yesterday laid down the first two streetcar tracks, putting the project on a clear path to completion after years of financial and political hurdles. The $133 million project is now expected to continue its construction phase over the next three years, with a goal of opening to the public on Sept. 15, 2016. City officials, including Mayor Mark Mallory and City Manager Milton Dohoney, celebrated the milestone and thanked supporters for remaining committed to the project. Meanwhile, former Councilman John Cranley, a streetcar opponent who’s running for mayor against streetcar supporter Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, criticized the city for laying down the tracks instead of delaying the project until a new mayor takes office in December. Cranley insists that he’ll cancel the project if he takes office, even though roughly half a mile of track will be laid out by then and, because of contractual obligations and federal money tied to the project, canceling the project at this point could cost millions more than completing it.
The Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition yesterday announced it’s suing the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department over a new policy that attempts to remove homeless people from courthouse steps with the threat of arrest. The sheriff’s office says it still intends to redirect homeless people to housing and other services, but it told WVXU that clearing out the courthouse is necessary to invoke a “type of immediacy” to encourage homeless residents “to seek housing and a better situation.” Advocates call the policy dangerous and unfair. A press conference will be held later today to discuss the lawsuit.
State Senate President Keith Faber says he expects Gov. John Kasich’s proposal for a two-year, federally funded Medicaid expansion to gain approval from a seven-member legislative oversight panel known as the Controlling Board. Faber, a Republican who opposes the expansion, says it’s now time for the legislature to consider broader reforms for Medicaid, which provides health insurance to low-income and disabled Ohioans. After months of wrangling with legislators in his own political party to approve the expansion, Kasich, a Republican, on Friday announced he would bypass the legislature and instead ask the Controlling Board to approve federal funds to expand Medicaid eligibility to more low-income Ohioans for two years. The Health Policy Institute of Ohio previously found the expansion would generate $1.8 billion for Ohio and insure nearly half a million Ohioans over the next decade.
Mayor Mallory says the Millenium Hotel’s owners agreed to conduct a feasibility study to see what kind of renovations the market will support for the hotel. Mallory told The Cincinnati Enquirer that the agreement is the first sign of progress since discussions about overhauling the shabby hotel began.
To tackle concerns about second-hand smoking, one state senator proposed a bill that would ban smoking in a car when a young child is present. It’s the second time in two years State Sen. Charleta Tavares (D-Columbus) introduced the bill.
Allegiant Air will offer low fares to fly to Florida from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), ending months of speculation over whether the airline would pick CVG or Lunken Airport.
A state audit released on Tuesday found a local water worker was paid $437 in 2001 for work that wasn’t done.
Cincinnati’s 21c Museum Hotel was named the No. 1 hotel in the country and tied for No. 11 in the world in Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards.
Scientists found a way to block the dopamine rush associated with THC and make marijuana un-fun to help people with a psychological dependence on the drug.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reports the Cincinnati streetcar is being delayed until 2016. The streetcar has been delayed time and time again, much to the cheer of opponents. Some opponents have taken the delay as yet another chance to take shots at the streetcar, but the city says a lot of the delays have been due to factors out of the city’s control, including ballot initiatives, the state pulling out a massive $52 million in funding and a dispute with Duke Energy.The U.S. unemployment rate remained at 7.8 percent in December, with November’s rate being revised upward to 7.8 percent as well. Employers reported adding about 155,000 jobs last month, but about 192,000 entered the labor force, meaning the amount of people joining the labor force outmatched the newly employed. The unemployment rate looks at the amount of unemployed people in the civilian labor force, which includes anyone working or looking for work.
U.S. Speaker John Boehner was re-elected U.S. House speaker. Just moments after securing the top House seat, Boehner said he will make the U.S. debt a top priority. But continuing to make the debt and deficit top issues could hurt the economy, as the fiscal cliff and recent developments in Europe have shown.
Uncle Sam is helping out Cincinnati firefighters. The Cincinnati Fire Department will be getting $6 million in federal grant money to hire 40 additional firefighters. The money will be enough to fund salaries for two years.
Cincinnati’s biggest cable provider dropped Current TV after it was sold to Qatar-based Al Jazeera. The Pan-Arab news network has had a difficult time establishing a foothold in American markets, largely because of the perception that it’s anti-American. But Al Jazeera has put out some great news stories, and some of the stories won awards in 2012.
If anyone is planning a trip through New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, Dayton International Airport now has that covered.
A small town in Ohio is being accused of covering up an alleged gang rape to protect a local football team. But KnightSec, a hacking group affiliated with the organization Anonymous, is fighting back by releasing evidence related to the case.
Despite a solved fiscal cliff deal extending emergency unemployment benefits, Ohio’s unemployed will soon be getting less aid. The decrease was automatically triggered by the state’s declining unemployment rate.
Ohio’s universities are adopting more uniform standards for remedial classes.
The newest Congress is a little more diverse.
In what might be the worst news of the century, the Blue Wisp Jazz Club could close down. The club, which has the greatest spinach-and-artichoke dip in the universe, is facing financial problems.
People who recently obtained gift cards for Rave Motion Pictures may want to get a move on. The theater is being sold to AMC Theatres.
A new theory suggest Earth should have been a snowball in its early days, but it wasn’t due to greenhouse gases.
Mayor John Cranley might veto an ordinance continuing the $132.8 million streetcar project, even if a majority of City Council wants the project to continue after its costs are reviewed through an independent audit, said Jay Kincaid, Cranley’s chief of staff, on Friday.
The decision means six of nine council members — a supermajority — might be required to overturn a mayoral veto and continue the streetcar project. With only two perceived swing votes on council, that could prove a considerably higher hurdle than a simple majority of five council members.
“Of course he reserves the right to veto the legislation,” Kincaid said.
If Cranley reviews the numbers and decides that the project is too costly, he will use the veto powers provided to him through the city charter, Kincaid explained.
Kincaid’s response came after CityBeat confirmed with City Solicitor John Curp that continuing the streetcar project would require a new ordinance that, in theory, could be vetoed by the mayor. City Council can overcome a mayoral veto with a supermajority, or six of nine total council votes.
When CityBeat talked to Kincaid the day before he confirmed Cranley’s willingness to veto, Kincaid speculated that Cranley would not veto legislation continuing the streetcar project.
“I have not talked to (Cranley) about it. I assume that he would let it go forward since he gave (Councilman) David Mann his word that he would give this time to review it, and he gave the same assurance to (Councilman) Kevin Flynn,” Kincaid previously said.
Five of nine council members on Wednesday agreed to allocate $1.25
million to indefinitely pause the streetcar project and pay
for an independent study that will gauge how much it will cost to
continue or permanently cancel the project.
Streetcar Project Executive John Deatrick previously warned the costs of completely canceling the streetcar project could nearly reach the costs of completion 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 terminated.
Almost immediately, a majority of council voiced distrust toward Deatrick’s numbers. In a press conference following Deatrick’s presentation, Cranley called city officials in charge of the streetcar project “incompetent.”
Council members Flynn and Mann vocally opposed the streetcar project on the campaign trail. But both said they’ll make a final decision on the project once the cancellation and completion numbers are evaluated through an independent review.
Mann previously told CityBeat, “If they do hold up, that’s fairly persuasive.”
Flynn wouldn’t speculate on what stance he will take if the numbers stand to scrutiny. He said a pressing concern for him is how the city will pay for $3.4-$4.5 million in annual operating costs for the streetcar, which could hit an already-strained operating budget.
If Cranley vetoes an ordinance continuing the streetcar project, both Flynn and Mann would likely need to agree to continue — or at least overturn a mayoral veto — to keep the streetcar alive.
City officials estimate the review will take at least two weeks. Once the audit is finished, council members are expected to announce their final positions on continuing or canceling the project.
Update: Mayor John Cranley on Friday announced the federal government is giving Cincinnati until Dec. 19 to make a decision on the streetcar project. Read more here.
This story was updated to better explain that Jay Kincaid’s second direct quote came from a separate conversation on Thursday, the day before he announced Mayor John Cranley’s willingness to veto.
More than a dozen business and philanthropic entities support the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority’s (SORTA) offer to develop a private-public partnership to fund the streetcar’s operating costs, Eric Avner, vice president of the Haile Foundation, told CityBeat on Tuesday.
If enough private contributors agree to finance the streetcar’s operating costs, they could address a major concern raised by streetcar opponents and provide the clearest path forward for the $132.8 million streetcar project since the new mayor and City Council took office early this month.
The Haile Foundation already contributed $1 million to an operating reserve fund for the streetcar, but Avner cautions that his organization’s donation is only the beginning, given all the other entities interested in moving the streetcar forward.
Avner says 14 other business and philanthropic leaders supported the SORTA concept in person or through writing in time for SORTA’s board of trustees meeting on Tuesday. Among other community leaders, Avner cites Otto Budig, Cathy Crain of Cincinnati State, William Portman of the University of Cincinnati, Jeannie Golliher of the Cincinnati Development Fund, Rick Greiwe of Greiwe Development and Jack and Peg Wyant of Grandin Properties.
In a letter to SORTA, the Haile Foundation offers to recruit and financially establish a commission of community leaders that will work with the agency to create an operating and revenue plan that will require no funds from the city of Cincinnati. The letter also promises to leverage the initial $1 million investment to secure additional contributors and build a fund that would pay for a full year of operating costs.
Mayor John Cranley called SORTA’s offer “woefully
insufficient” in a press conference on Tuesday. Cranley said the city will need financial assurances far above the Haile
Foundation’s $1 million to cover $3.4-$4.5 million in annual operating costs for the streetcar over 30 years.
Councilman Kevin Flynn, one of two potential swing votes
on City Council, agreed with Cranley’s assessment, but he said the proposal could become a viable option if the city receives more
assurances from SORTA and private entities that show the groups are serious in their offer.
SORTA already agreed to help operate the streetcar if the
project is completed, but its decision to take up the operating costs shows
an additional commitment to the project.
The agency claims bus services will not be impacted by its increased commitment to the streetcar.
City Council expects to vote on Thursday on whether to restart the streetcar project. Council paused the project on Dec. 4 while the city audits the project’s completion, cancellation and operating costs.
Read the Haile Foundation’s full letter below:
In a memo to the mayor and City Council members last night, City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. revealed the streetcar is facing a $22.7 million shortfall because construction bids were way over budget. The memo says $5.3 million of that budget gap could be brought down through cuts, but fixing the rest requires $17.4 million in additional funds. The memo comes at a time the city is attempting to balance its operating budget by laying off cops and firefighters. But as John Deatrick explained when the city moved to hire him for the streetcar project, the streetcar is part of the capital budget, which is separate from the operating budget and can't be used to balance the operating budget because of legal and traditional constraints.
The budget bill heading to the Ohio House floor would ban comprehensive sex education, defund Planned Parenthood and fund crisis pregnancy centers that pro-choice groups consider "anti-choice." Citing "gateway sexual activity," the bill would open teachers to up to $5,000 in fines for explaining the use of condoms and other birth control to students, and it also bans the distribution of any birth control on school grounds. The bill takes its anti-contraceptive measures to promote an abstinence-only education program. Research has found abstinence-only programs to be generally ineffective, while birth control programs ultimately save money by avoiding costly pregnancies and sexually transmitted infection treatment.
Councilman Cecil Thomas is stepping down, and he will be replaced by his wife of 32 years, Pam Thomas. The appointment has raised questions about how council members are replaced upon resignation, but Thomas says he's just following the rules. Under the current system, designees appoint successors to council seats, but the designees give great weight to the incumbent's input.
JobsOhio repaid $8.4 million to Ohio yesterday — fulfilling a promise it made in March that it would fully repay the state for public funding received since it opened on July 5, 2011. The sum is much higher than the $1 million state officials originally said would go to the agency. JobsOhio's finances came under criticism after it was revealed that Gov. John Kasich was redirecting public funds to the agency, prompting a closer look from State Auditor Dave Yost. JobsOhio is a privatized development agency that Kasich and Republicans established to eventually replace the Ohio Department of Development.
In light of the Boston Marathon bombings, Flying Pig Marathon organizers are evaluating security measures, but they're not sure whether additional measures are needed just yet. The Flying Pig Marathon is expected to draw more than 20,000 participants on May 5 — close to the 23,000 who typically attend the Boston Marathon. Still, only about 150,000 spectators are expected at the Flying Pig Marathon, while about 500,000 typically spectate the Boston Marathon.
City Council is expected to vote today in support of expanding mobile food vending in the city and make the program, which is handled by 3CDC, permanent. The new mobile vending spots will be near nightlife areas in Over-the-Rhine and during the day at Washington Park.
TriHealth and Mercy Health are among the top 15 hospital systems in the United States, according to a new ranking from Truven Health Analytics.
When renewing its contract with Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc., Kroger asked the company to move its center from Des Moines, Iowa, to Cincinnati, bringing an estimated 55 new jobs to the city.
New surgical tape works like a parasitic worm for extra stickiness.
For the first time, scientists are being allowed to study psychedelics for potential medical treatments.
At a Budget and Finance Committee meeting today, City Council members grilled City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. on how the city will fix the streetcar project’s $17.4 million budget gap and whether paying for the cost overrun to save the project is worth it.
Supporters of the streetcar pushed questions and comments that suggested the streetcar will provide the city with a large return on investment, which was supported by Dohoney’s testimony and previous studies from HDR, a consulting firm, and the University of Cincinnati (“Back on the Ballot,” issue of Jan. 23).
Opponents suggested the cost overruns were too much, and the project, which the city manager said now stands at an estimated $132 million to $133 million, is too expensive.
In a memo issued April 30, Dohoney recommended various capital funding sources to fix the streetcar budget gap, including a temporary reallocation of Music Hall renovation funds and money that would have otherwise gone to infrastructure projects around the Horseshoe Casino.
Dohoney clarified that funding for Music Hall is not being permanently pulled; instead, his recommendations would delay Music Hall funding until 2016, which is when the Music Hall project will need the funds, and use currently allocated funding on the streetcar project.
Dohoney added that Otto Budig, president of the Music Hall Revitalization Company, raised no concerns about the streetcar plan after it was explained to him.
Dohoney also clarified that his recommendations would not raise taxes.
A few council members, particularly Councilman Chris
Seelbach, asked whether the streetcar project could face future cost
overruns. Dohoney said it’s possible, based on the project’s scope.
“For major projects like this … there is usually an anticipation that something other than the exact plan may occur somewhere along the line,” Dohoney said.
For the streetcar project, there are a few remaining uncertainties. Dohoney said he doesn’t know for certain whether Messer
Construction, which responded to the city’s bid process with the lowest construction bid, is still willing
to contract with the city under the terms it previously offered. He said Messer officials have indicated they are still interested, but it remains an uncertainty until a contract is in place.
Another uncertainty is exactly how much laying down the tracks will cost. Dohoney said it won’t be possible to gauge the exact cost until Messer or any other company contracts with the city and begins actual work on the project.
But for those situations, Dohoney said the streetcar project has a $10 million contingency fund available, as required by the federal government.
Councilman Chris Smitherman, who opposes the streetcar project, asked whether there’s a funding ceiling that, if breached, would make Dohoney stop supporting the streetcar project. Dohoney said he could not provide a number without further thought and analysis. When Smitherman later asked if the streetcar should be built at any cost, Dohoney said no.
When asked what would happen if the project’s cost overruns were not covered, Dohoney said the project would effectively end.
Smitherman asked how the city administration can be pushing forward with the project, given the cost overruns: “How is the administration continuing to move forward with a project that without a vote of council is dead?”
Dohoney responded by saying the city administration does not have to stop by law until it is directed to do so by City Council.
Ending the project would come with its own costs of about $72 million, according to Dohoney: $19.7 million that was already spent, $14.2 million in close-out costs and $38.1 million in federal grants that would have to be returned to the federal government.
Dohoney said stopping would also make the federal government reluctant about working with Cincinnati in the future: “They’ve let us know they would not be pleased if we did it.”
The city administration is currently working with the federal government to obtain another $5 million that could be used for contingency or to undo some of the overrun fixes being looked at, but federal officials are waiting to see how the city government reacts to the current cost overrun problems before a decision is made, according to Dohoney.
Much of the City Council discussion focused on the streetcar’s merits,
particularly whether the first phase of the project, which would run
from The Banks to just north of Findlay Market, could be successful on its own. The
city plans to eventually expand the route to the University of
Cincinnati and hospitals uptown — a route originally part of the first phase of the streetcar project that was cut after Gov. John Kasich pulled $52 million in state-distributed federal funding in 2011.
“If the intent of the streetcar would only be to go from The Banks to just north of Findlay Market, then I never would have said it's a project worth doing,” Dohoney said. “The intention has always been to connect the two major employment centers of the city and go beyond that.”
But Dohoney later clarified that the first phase of the project would help invigorate hundreds of vacant lots and buildings in Over-the-Rhine, which he said would make that phase of the project a success by itself.
Some opponents of the streetcar have incorrectly attempted to tie the streetcar project to the city’s $35 million operating budget deficit, which will likely be closed in part by laying off cops, firefighters and other city employees. But the streetcar project’s funding comes from the capital budget, which can’t be used to balance the operating budget because of limits established in state law.
In February, the U.S. unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent, from 7.9 percent in January, and the nation added 236,000 jobs. Many of the new jobs — about 48,000 — came from construction, while government employment saw a drop even before sequestration, a series of across-the-board federal spending cuts, began on March 1. Economists seem quite positive about the report.
In January, Ohio’s unemployment rate rose to 7 percent, from 6.7 percent in December, with the number of unemployed in the state rising to 399,000, from 385,000 the month before. Goods-producing and service-providing industries and local government saw a rise in employment, while jobs were lost in trade, transportation, utilities, financial activities, professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, state government and federal government. In January, U.S. unemployment rose to 7.9 percent, from 7.8 percent in December.
A new report outlined renovations for the city-owned Tower Place Mall, which is getting a makeover as part of Cincinnati’s parking plan. A lot of the retail space in the mall will be replaced to make room for parking that will be accessed through what is currently Pogue’s Garage, but two rings of retail space will remain, according to the report. The parking plan was approved by City Council Wednesday, but it was temporarily halted by a Hamilton County judge. The legal contest has now moved to federal court, and it’s set to get a hearing today.
Meet the mayoral candidates through CityBeat’s two extensive Q&As: Roxanne Qualls and John Cranley. Qualls spoke mostly about her support for immigration, the parking plan and streetcar, while Cranley discussed his opposition to the parking plan and streetcar and some of his ideas for Cincinnati.
A Hamilton County court ruled against the controversial traffic cameras in Elmwood Place, and the Ohio legislature is considering a statewide ban on the cameras. In his ruling, Judge Robert Ruehlman pointed out there were no signs making motorists aware of the cameras and the cameras are calibrated once a year by a for-profit operator. The judge added, “Elmwood Place is engaged in nothing more than a high-tech game of 3-card Monty. … It is a scam that motorists can’t win.” Bipartisan legislation was recently introduced to prohibit traffic cameras in Ohio.
JobsOhio, the state-funded nonprofit corporation, quietly got $5.3 million in state grants, even though the state legislature only appropriated $1 million for startup costs. JobsOhio says it needed the extra funds because legal challenges have held up liquor profits that were originally supposed to provide funding. In the past few days, State Auditor Dave Yost, a Republican, has been pushing Republican Gov. John Kasich and JobsOhio to release more details about the nonprofit corporation’s finances, but Kasich and JobsOhio have been pushing back.
Advocates for Ohio’s charter schools say Kasich’s budget amounts to a per-pupil cut, with funding dropping from $5,704 per pupil to $5,000 plus some targeted assistance that ranges from hundreds of dollars to nothing depending on the school. A previous CityBeat report on online schools found traditional public schools get about $3,193 per student — much less than the funding that apparently goes to charter schools.
Fountain Square will be getting a new television from Cincinnati-based LSI Industries with the help of Fifth-Third Bank and the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC). The new video board will have better image quality and viewing angles, but it will also come with more screen space for sponsors.
Ohio’s casino revenues rose in January. That could be a good sign for Cincinnati’s Horseshoe Casino, which opened Monday.
In light of recent discussion, Popular Science posted a Q&A on drones.