Standing in front of roughly 40 supporters, city leaders gave the order on Tuesday to lay down the first two streetcar tracks.
The milestone has been years in the making for the $133 million streetcar project — ever since City Council approved the streetcar plan in 2008 and the project broke ground in February 2012.
“This is another great day in our great city,” proclaimed Mayor Mark Mallory, a major proponent of the streetcar. “This is the project that will not stop.”
Political and financial hurdles snared the massive project in the past five years, but city officials say the construction phase is so far within budget and on time, putting it on track to open to the public on Sept. 15, 2016.
Until then, City Manager Milton Dohoney asked for patience as construction progresses.
But not everyone was happy with the milestone. Ex-Councilman John Cranley, a streetcar opponent who’s running for mayor against streetcar supporter Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, criticized the city for not delaying the project until a new mayor takes office in December.
“The streetcar has been a bad idea and a bad deal for the people of Cincinnati from the beginning,” Cranley said in a statement. “To lay track for a project that can’t be completed for three years right before an election that will serve as a referendum on the project is a slap in face to the voters.”
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.
Multiple streetcar supporters at the event told CityBeat that Cranley’s demands are ridiculous. They say that delaying a project with contractual obligations and deadlines for two months because of a political campaign would cripple the city’s ability to take on future projects as weary contractors question the city’s commitments.
Streetcar supporters back the project as both another option for public transit and an economic development driver. Previous studies from consulting firm HDR and the University of Cincinnati found the Over-the-Rhine and downtown loop will produce a three-to-one return on investment.
Opponents say the project is too costly. They argue the project forced the city to raise property taxes and forgo other capital projects, such as the interchange at Interstate 75 and Martin Luther King Drive.
The project already went through two referendums in 2009 and 2011 in which voters effectively approved the streetcar.
Gov. John Kasich pulled $52 million in federal funds from the project in 2011 after he won the 2010 gubernatorial election against former Gov. Ted Strickland, whose administration allocated the money to the streetcar.
Earlier in 2013, City Council closed a $17.4 million budget gap after construction bids for the project came in higher than expected.
Despite the hurdles, city leaders remain committed to the project. They estimate the first section of the track — on Elm Street between 12th and Henry streets — will be finished in January 2014.