Cincinnati City Council Approves First Steps in Streetcar 'Divorce' From Transit Authority

The move comes as SORTA mulls a countywide sales tax levy to improve bus service.

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

Cincinnati City Council today approved an ordinance that will begin the process of transitioning the streetcar from the control of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority to the city. 

The ordinance, introduced by council member Greg Landsman, allows the city to create a new position called Chief Safety Officer of Streetcar Services at a cost of $100,000 from the streetcar fund's surplus. It also approves another $230,000 from that surplus to go to outside legal counsel for the streetcar and authorizes Cincinnati City Manager Patrick Duhaney to "do all things necessary" to transition management from SORTA to the city.

Currently, the city contracts with SORTA to manage the streetcar, which pays a private company called Transdev to oversee daily operations. That's led to assertions by some council members like Landsman that the 3.6-mile rail transit system's organization structure is too complicated for real accountability. 

"The project needs to be reorganized," Landsman said today.

The ordinance also contains a clause directing city administration to study the possibility of a nonprofit entity managing the streetcar in the future — an idea floated by council member Jeff Pastor. Streetcars in Portland and Kansas City are managed by separate nonprofits, but some council members and Mayor John Cranley have expressed skepticism about the benefits of such an arrangement in Cincinnati. 

Pastor, along with Chris Seelbach and Tamaya Dennard, voted against the ordinance. 

"I voted No to this appropriations ordinance because I believe the taxpayers would be best served if a nonprofit board and a true CEO managed the city-owned streetcar," Pastor tweeted after his vote. "We should learn from @kcstreetcar. The streetcar should not be managed out of City Hall permanently."

Seelbach said he opposed the ordinance due to the political subtext for the divorce: a countywide sales tax levy ask SORTA's board is expected to approve this month. Distancing the bus service from the politically-contentious streetcar is seen by some members of the coalition of elected officials, members of the business community and others as a necessity to win over county voters. 

Council should be making decisions based on what will work best, not what will win over voters deciding on a separate matter, Seelbach said.

"I'm not convinced at this point that the city can do a better job than SORTA," he said of the streetcar's management.

More votes will be necessary to complete the split from SORTA, and the transition is expected to cost more than $536,000 overall — a large chunk of the streetcar's remaining $822,000 surplus. 

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