Cincinnati Bridges Streetcar Deficit

Council voted 6-3 to close a $1.4 million budget deficit by raising parking infraction fines and fines for blocking the streetcar and by moving forward with digital advertising at streetcar kiosks

click to enlarge The Cincinnati Bell Connector - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
The Cincinnati Bell Connector

Cincinnati City Council passed a measure bridging a $1.4 million funding gap for the city's streetcar system.

The fixes avoid a controversial admissions/ticket tax for nonprofits like the Cincinnati Zoo and other popular attractions proposed by city administration.

The plan by council members Greg Landsman, David Mann and Chris Seelbach would create a long-term plan for streetcar funding, its creators say. Council members P.G. Sittenfeld, Wendell Young and Tamaya Dennard also voted for the budget fix, giving it a veto-proof majority.

The proposal would cover streetcar operations by doing the following:

• Increasing fines in no parking zones from $50 to $65 

• Increasing fines for blocking the streetcar from $50 to $100

• Move forward with digital ad kiosks at streetcar stops to raise an additional $500,000 a year. Those kiosks have already been purchased, but have yet to be deployed.

• Cut $50,000 from the current streetcar budget

The city administration proposed two possible solutions to the budget crunch: the aforementioned ticket tax or hikes to parking fees, an increased residential parking permit fee for Over-the-Rhine and a car booting program for cars with outstanding parking violations.  

Council member Sittenfeld indicated he wouldn't support the former option, however, and a number of popular groups, including the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, expressed their displeasure with the idea as well. 

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, an independent, and council members Amy Murray and Jeff Pastor, both Republicans, opposed the plan from Seelbach, Mann and Landsman.

And Mayor John Cranley, long a critic of the streetcar, warned of increasing deficits over time under the current plan.

"I don't want people to think that we're not warning them that these numbers are only going to get worse," he told council.

Council member Landsman said that he hopes the changes are part of a larger shift toward sustainability for the streetcar. Landsman laid out several points he said should get the streetcar to increased ridership and overall success experienced by other systems like the one in Kansas City.

The first step — hiring a streetcar CEO — has already happened. The city pays Travis Jeric, who formerly worked in the city's law department, $105,000 a year to lead the transit project. The city's Department of Transportation and Engineering pays that salary, and the change is where the $50,000 reduction in the streetcar's operating costs come from.

Landsman said the streetcar should also be overseen by an independent nonprofit entity. Efforts are already underway to make that happen, Landsman says. Currently, the streetcar is run by a complicated collaboration between the city, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority and contractor Transdev.

The streetcar also needs to be reliable, something that the system has struggled with in the past. But Landsman said things are getting better on that end and work continues to clear blockages in high-traffic areas downtown. 

The project also needs to be fareless to ride, Landsman says — something the city says will cost an extra $100,000 in security costs.

One of the biggest changes Landsman is championing could also be the most challenging — a special taxing district in downtown and Over-the-Rhine in which property owners are assessed extra fees to help operate the streetcar. That would need approval from those property owners, however.

"We've obviously inherited a bit of a mess in terms of the project, both financially and otherwise," Landsman said earlier this month, when a version of the budget fixes passed out of council's Budget and Finance Committee. "I think the only way forward is to try and... fix what's broken." 

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