City Desk June 10-16

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority on June 5 released the dollar amounts for the two lowest bids for the first 10 years of streetcar operations. One bid is under the city’s budget, while the other is not.

SORTA Releases Streetcar Operating Costs

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority on June 5 released the dollar amounts for the two lowest bids for the first 10 years of streetcar operations. One bid is under the city’s budget, while the other is not. But a timely decision by Cincinnati City Council might be more complicated than choosing the less- expensive option.

The so-called “turnkey scenario” would involve a management company hiring outside employees to run the streetcar. That proposal came in under the city’s budgeted expenses for streetcar operations. Another bid, called the “management scenario,” would require the management company to use SORTA employees belonging to the Amalgamated Transit Union. That bid came in $500,000 over budget for the first year of operation.

That’s within a range of flexibility the city has thanks to $900,000 offered by the Haile Foundation to help operate the streetcar in its first year. However, it’s unclear if the foundation, which has supported the development of the streetcar thus far, is willing to pay for the extra expense of union employees.

The bids look to be politically tricky for Democratic streetcar supporters, who have pushed hard for a union-friendly contract. The turnkey scenario comes in just under the $47,088,828 the city has said it wants to spend over the first 10 years of the streetcar at $46,972,813. The management scenario, however, comes in over that amount at $54,933,160. In the first year, the management contract exceeds the streetcar’s $4.2 million budget by $500,000, while the turnkey proposal comes in about $160,000 under budget. The bids give numbers for a five-year contract plus an optional five-year extension.

The names of the bidding companies were not released, per SORTA’s assertion that it would compromise the competitive bidding process and violate state law.

Mayor John Cranley, who campaigned on opposition to the streetcar, has said he supports cutting frequency of service for the streetcar should it go over budget. However, he and other Democrats on Cincinnati City Council support the management bid because it would utilize unionized employees. It is unclear to what degree the city will be able to limit streetcar frequency due to the federal money the project has received. The Federal Transportation Administration awarded that money based on the city’s application, which stipulated how often the streetcar would run.

Republicans on council, meanwhile, said the city should go with the least-costly option.

“I’m going to push for the best provider, and since one has come out significantly less expensive, I think that’s the operator we should go with,” said City Councilwoman Amy Murray, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, during that committee’s meeting last week.

Some of the cost overruns in the management bid are attributable to benefits packages offered to union employees. The ATU could unionize the turnkey bidder’s selected employees after they are hired, however, though they wouldn’t get state pensions, as SORTA employees do.

City Council looks poised to vote on the two options this week. The clock is ticking to make the decision, SORTA says. The streetcar is scheduled to begin running in September 2017.

“To avoid delay and additional cost for the streetcar project, the SORTA Board needs a decision on the preferred method from Cincinnati City Council by the end of June so that SORTA can award the contract in July,” SORTA head Jason Dunn said in a statement about the bids. (Nick Swartsell)

New Women’s Shelters Open in Mount Auburn

Two new shelters for women experiencing homelessness and other challenges are now open in Mount Auburn.

The Esther Marie Hatton Center for Women opened June 5 and will have 60 beds, classrooms and other facilities for homeless women. The $8.3 million shelter, run by nonprofit Shelterhouse, is one of two replacing the current Drop Inn Center on 12th Street in Over-the-Rhine. The men’s shelter, called the David and Rebecca Baron Center, will move to Queensgate in September.

The shelter is part of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s Homeless to Homes program, which began in 2009. The Shelterhouse locations, along with three others, are designed to provide services that move homeless individuals along a long-term path out of homelessness. About 7,800 people in Cincinnati were homeless in 2014, according to a study released in May.

The other shelters in the plan are the new City Gospel Mission location in Queensgate, which opened this spring, and the Lighthouse Youth Services Sheakley Center in Mount Auburn and the Talbert House Parkway Center in Fairview, both of which opened in 2012.

Strategies to End Homelessness, which is instituting the plan, has launched a campaign to raise money to help fund the new shelters. The organization looks to raise $2.7 million to close funding gaps on the facilities. The five shelters cost about $40 million to build.

The new Anna Louise Inn, another shelter oriented toward long-term care for women escaping abusive relationships, sex trafficking, addiction and other hardships, opened June 9 next door to the Hatton Center on Reading Road.

The $14 million, 64,000-square-foot facility includes 85 efficiency apartments plus space for the Off the Streets program, which aids women leaving sex work.

The apartments will provide women there with a new level of independence, the nonprofit says.

“The most important thing about this new building is that by going to these efficiency apartments it totally increases the quality of life and the self-sufficiency for low-income women,” Cincinnati Union Bethel Executive Vice President Mary Carol Melton told WVXU recently. The Inn’s former facility offered only dormitory-style housing without individual bathrooms and other amenities.

The new building replaces the Inn’s former location near Lytle Park downtown. That shelter was the subject of a contentious legal battle between Cincinnati Union Bethel, which runs the Inn, and Western & Southern Financial Group.

Western & Southern sought to block tax credits Cincinnati Union Bethel wished to use to renovate the Lytle Park location, which it had occupied for more than 100 years. The insurance company argued that the shelter was not compatible with the neighborhood’s zoning.

After a long legal battle, Cincinnati Union Bethel agreed to sell the location to Western & Southern, which is currently renovating the building to turn it into a luxury hotel.

Residents of the Anna Louise Inn will begin moving to the new location in Mount Auburn starting next week. (NS)

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