By now anyone who's interested in Cincinnati politics probably has heard about the insensitive and over-the-top comment posted Sept. 11 on Twitter by a leader of an anti-streetcar group.
Mark Miller, treasurer for the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), posted the following:
3% of FDNY died 10 yrs ago by terrorism. Today Cincinnati lost 17.5% of fire companies by brownout to pay for a streetcar. Which is worse?
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.
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.”
As part of its slate of endorsements announced today, the Cincinnati U.S.A. Regional Chamber of Commerce stated it's opposed to Issue 48, the proposed charter amendment that would block construction of Cincinnati's planned streetcar system.
The Chamber announced its positions on six local issues that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.
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.
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.
Mayor Mark Mallory last
night announced during his State of the City address that the city
has chosen the model and vendor for the first batch of streetcars.
The mayor's office today released details about the vendor, along with renderings of the streetcars Cincinnatians can expect to see traversing the 4-mile
loop that will cover 18 stops connecting The Banks, Government Square, Fountain
Square, Broadway Commons, the Gateway Quarter and Music Hall.
According to the release,
the vendor, CAF USA, has produced light rail vehicles for Pittsburgh,
Sacramento and Houston and streetcar vehicles for the international
cities such as Besançon and Nantes, France; Belgrade, Serbia;
Antalya, Turkey; Stockholm, Sweden; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Spanish
cities Zaragoza, Granada, Sevilla, Bilbao and Vitoria.
Officials in February broke ground the Cincinnati Streetcar system, and the city hopes to add additional phases connecting the Uptown area near the University of Cincinnati once funding is secured.
The following are renderings released by the city:
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)
An anti-tax group has made opposing Cincinnati’s planned streetcar project its primary cause in recent years, so it might be surprising to now find one of its leaders teaming up with a major streetcar advocate.
But that’s exactly what is happening later this month as Chris Finney, of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), co-hosts a political fundraiser with Chris Bortz, an ex-Cincinnati city councilman.
The Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) has threatened to block a move that would allow Cincinnati to use $37.5 million from the 2007 sale of the Blue Ash Airport for projects other than aviation, $11 million of which would go to the Cincinnati streetcar.
The Blue Ash City Council voted Thursday to re-do the sale of 130 acres at the Blue Ash Airport to the City of Cincinnati. COAST says it wants to put the matter before voters in a 2013 referendum, which would halt the sale and re-instate the original agreement made in 2007 when Cincinnati made the sale.
The two cities decided to re-work the $37.5 million sale because a federal rule requires proceeds from the sale of an operating airport to be used for other aviation projects. The money would be returned, airport shut down and then the property re-sold to Blue Ash for the original amount.
“When they originally sold it they were stupid, which is typical of the City of Cincinnati, and did not realize that the proceeds on the sale of the airport have to go to other aviation-type things,” says COAST Chairman Tom Brinkman. “Now that they want to get the streetcar, they want to crack that money.”
Brinkman openly admits he doesn’t want the money to go to the streetcar (“We’re doing everything we can to make sure that boondoggle doesn’t occur”) but says COAST is working with a group of local pilots who want money from the sale to go to Cincinnati’s Lunken Airport.
Blue Ash is confident that the ordinance they passed approving the re-sale isn’t subject to referendum.
“Blue Ash believes everything enacted was lawful and would survive any challenge,” says City Solicitor Brian Pachenco. He declined to discuss specifics
The city wants the airport land to build a park.
Pachenco said the ordinance wasn’t written specifically to exempt it from referendum attempts, but nevertheless it falls under a section of the city’s charter that makes voters unable to recall it.
COAST isn’t so sure.
Chris Finney, legal counsel for COAST, said the buying and selling of land under the Blue Ash charter is subject to referendum. He said the ordinance was written to avoid using that language, but what was happening was in reality a sale.
For its part, Cincinnati doesn’t seem too concerned with the threatened referendum.
“We’re not going to talk 'what ifs' at this point,” city spokeswoman Meg Olberding said. “The streetcar has had two previous referendums that have been shot down.”
She pointed out that only $11 million of the sale was going toward the streetcar, and the remaining money would be available for other projects.
Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Seelbach was also unconcerned.
“COAST and groups like COAST have tried to put up every obstacle possible to prevent the streetcar from happening and we have overcome all of them,” Seelbach said. “I am 100 percent positive if this comes to a vote we will overcome it again and the streetcar will be built.”