Morning News: Can 500,000 people fit in two streetcars? Let's try it!; Duke sizes down pipeline plan; Sharonville fire chief caught with sex worker, still getting paid by city

Despite the streetcar's opening weekend success, we're still fighting about the thing, with the latest argument over the $20,000 cost to operate additional cars during Oktoberfest.

click to enlarge This building houses fights over the streetcar and other occasional government functions
This building houses fights over the streetcar and other occasional government functions

Hello Cincy. It’s morning news time.

Well, you’ve probably heard by now, but more than 50,000 people rode the streetcar its inaugural weekend. The rides were free, of course, and the number probably isn’t a reliable forecast for future performance, but it’s still a measure of the excitement the transit project has drummed up. The streetcar's first weekend far outpaced the launch weekend for Kansas City’s streetcar in May, which saw about 32,000 riders.

• Despite that success, we’re apparently still fighting over this thing, with a new set of tussles unfolding at City Hall over the past couple days. It could be another busy weekend for the streetcar as 500,000 people descend on downtown for Oktoberfest Zinzinnati. How packed the city’s newest public transit system gets will depend on the outcome of a fight between the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority and the city. SORTA is pointing to its contract with the city, which says only two cars will run on weekends. But council members point to a separate provision in the contract requiring SORTA to keep the wait for a streetcar ride down to no more than 15 minutes, something that would be impossible to do with only two cars running on a busy weekend. The city would like to run four cars over the weekend, something SORTA says will cost another $20,000. That could come from the city’s streetcar contingency fund, or from SORTA’s $4.2 million streetcar operating budget. Council fought over the snag yesterday at its transportation committee meeting, and you can bet they'll be talking about today at the full Council meeting.

• Duke Energy is adjusting its plans to build a pipeline through several Greater Cincinnati communities. The energy provider had proposed building what would have been Hamilton County’s largest gas pipeline through parts of Blue Ash, Madeira, Silverton and Madisonville, among other possible locations. But after a group of community members pushed back on the 30-inch high-pressure pipeline and the city of Cincinnati officially opposed the plan, Duke went back to the drawing board. Now, the company is proposing a smaller 20-inch pipeline that will run at lower pressure and go through a longer, more expensive route to avoid some of the most contentious areas in the original plan. Community members with the group Neighbors Opposed to Pipeline Expansion aren’t totally convinced, however, and say they’re still investigating the company’s proposal.

• The chief of an area fire department is resigning after it was revealed he hired a sex worker online, but he’ll remain in a paid position as a consultant with the department for 30 months. Reading police spotted Sharonville Fire Chief Ralph Hammond’s car outside an apartment complex where they suspected prostitution was taking place. They later called Hammonds in to question him about his presence there, and he admitted he had hired a sex worker for $60 and had sex with her. Hammonds was not charged with any crime, but did promise to stay away from sex workers. He announced he would be departing Sharonville’s fire department in the aftermath of those revelations, and yesterday Sharonville City Council passed a resolution allowing Hammonds to stay on board as a consultant, a full-time role where he’ll make minimum wage. Sharonville Mayor Kevin Hardman cited Hammond’s “relatively almost unblemished record” (except, you know, for that one thing) and his 26 years of service to the department when announcing the consultancy role. There is no indication whether or not the sex worker Hammond hired was arrested or charged with a crime in the incident, or whether she was being trafficked. Yikes.

• Yesterday was voting rights theme day, apparently. First, about two dozen members of the group Nuns on the Bus Cincinnati hopped on a bus (as you might expect) in South Cumminsville and made a trip to downtown’s Hamilton County Board of Elections office. There, they asked the board, which had its regular meeting, to put a moratorium on voter roll purges. Across the state over the last decade, Ohio has been purging from its registration rolls voters who haven’t voted in four years and haven’t returned an address verification form. That’s left some surprised when they go to the polls and are unable to vote, including a disproportionate number of minorities, the nuns say. After the meeting, the nuns marched outside the board of elections, accompanied by a brass band and singing “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” to protest the voter purges. The U.S. Justice Department recently joined a federal lawsuit over the state’s voter purge policy.

• Also yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower federal court ruling that allows Ohio lawmakers to do away with the state’s so-called “Golden Week,” the time when voters can register and vote on the same day. About 80,000 people took advantage of golden week in 2012, many of them minorities. You can read more about that case here.

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