While hopes appeared to dim last week for Cincinnati’s long-planned streetcar system due to a series of legislative setbacks, local leaders say the project is far from dead.
“With any large project, I always preface anything by saying that it’s always a very long process and there are always obstacles,” says Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, one of several City Council members who’ve voiced hopes that the project will continue in some form.
“We have to keep our eyes on the prize,” she adds. “We’ll just have to look at ways to reconfigure the route and look at changes in the basic operating model that will still result in a successful project while reducing costs. That’s what’s happening now.”
One option being considered is constructing a smaller loop connecting downtown to Over-the-Rhine first, and delaying a planned segment to the uptown area near the University of Cincinnati. Qualls calls the latter segment “a critical component” to the streetcar’s positive economic impact, one that eventually would be built.
The latest obstacles for the project, which already survived a 2009 ballot challenge, came in a cascade last week. It began with the March 23 meeting in Columbus of TRAC (the state’s Transportation Review Advisory Council), charged with overseeing project development for the Ohio Department of Transportation. Headed by Jerry Wray, ODOT’s director, the eight-member board proposed withholding nearly $52 million it tentatively approved last year, citing the state’s budget problems.
Meanwhile, across the capital, State Sen. Shannon Jones (R-Springboro) inserted an amendment into the $7 billion, two-year state transportation bill that would prohibit using any state or federal money for streetcars. Back in Cincinnati, City Councilman Charlie Winburn (R-College Hill) introduced a motion stating the city should suspend any further planning for the project.
Collectively, it seemed to be the swan song for the $128 million project.
While Jones’ amendment and the state transportation bill were passed by the General Assembly and now awaits Gov. John Kasich’s likely signing, the other moves aren’t yet set in stone.
Winburn’s motion is unlikely to pass a City Council vote, freeing the city to continue planning a smaller, more affordable streetcar project. TRAC’s recommendation, which will be voted on by board members on April 12, is itself coming under fire.
William Brennan, one of two board members that expressed misgivings at the move during last week’s meeting — Antoinette Selvey-Maddox, from Cincinnati-based Management Partners Inc., was the other — says too little information was presented to support cutting off $37 million in future funding of the project while reneging on $15 million in funds it had already promised last year.
“I don’t know if the staff looked at anything, other than needing to cut the budget, to give us enough information that this is the only way to address the problem,” says Brennan, who also serves as commissioner of Toledo’s Division of Building Inspection.
ODOT spokeswoman Melissa Ayers says there were many factors to its recommendation to TRAC, but budgetary concerns were the chief motivation.
“TRAC can only, by law, be over-programmed by 20 percent,” she explains. “The way things are going, by 2017, we’ll be 105 percent — or $1.7 billion — over. We have far more on the books than what we have the funding for, and that was the main reason we recommend cutting that funding.”
But the streetcar system is far from the largest ticket item on TRAC’s list of new projects, although it was projected to generate the highest positive economic impact, according to TRAC’s own rankings based on transportation and potential economic development.
The streetcar project rated 84 on TRAC’s 100-point scale, far higher than any other project being considered — and well above several highway projects and a new, $86.2 million bridge over the Ohio River near Steubenville. The bridge project, with a ranking of26, is moving forward.
That, Brennan says, was a major source of concern for him.
“For such a high-ranking project to get its funding pulled while other, lower-ranking projects go forward, it certainly gives you pause,” he says. “I’m questioning the whole process right now. What other alternatives did the staff look at? Why was this project singled out? I don’t know, and those are the questions they need to answer before we vote on April 12.”
According to TRAC policies and procedures, the board is allowed to decide to fund or de-fund any project, regardless of the ranking, and consider “other factors.”
Politics, however, is not supposed to be one of those factors.
With Wray — a recent Kasich appointee — heading the board, the specter of politics has been raised.
In appointing Wray, a former ODOT director under Republican governors George Voinovich and Bob Taft, Kasich praised his new director as someone who “would not play politics with his position.” Wray was quick, however, to echo Kasich’s views on cutting funding to the 3C-Connector and other rail projects, including the streetcar.
Also, TRAC came under attack March 25 when the group planned a private conference call of board members to discuss Wednesday’s action, which is a violation of Ohio public meeting laws and a charge leveled at Kasich several times during his three months in office. After refusing to allow media members in on the call, it later canceled the call when The Enquirer threatened legal action.
Additionally, Ayers says TRAC took more than 3,200 pieces of correspondence in regards to the project in consideration before recommending streetcar funding cuts. The vast majority, she says, was opposed to the project. But public opinion isn’t mentioned as acceptable factor in the group’s policies for selecting projects to fund.
The TRAC board was stunned by the correspondence, the most it had ever received, Brennan says. He took it with an ounce of salt.
Streetcar opponents were “clearly organized,” he adds. “When we looked at the responses, business leaders were clearly in favor of the project. It was very clear the other letters were the result of an orchestrated effort.”
That TRAC considered the letters at all, Qualls says, flies in the face of its mandate.
“It’s a bunch of hockey puck. The TRAC process was established to solely evaluate projects on their technical merits,” Qualls says. “What they’ve done is taken an objective, technical process that was meant to remove politics and inserted politics. If that’s the way they want to do it, they should be straight and tell everyone they’ve politicized the process because that’s what they’ve done. Don’t treat everyone as if they’re stupid. Of course, it’s politics.”