Planning Problems Distract From Streetcar’s Value

I’ve been a longtime supporter of the streetcar project, but I have to admit I’m a bit worried after finding out the streetcar might be delayed once again because construction bids for the project were way over budget.

I’ve been a longtime supporter of the streetcar project, but I have to admit I’m a bit worried after finding out the streetcar might be delayed once again because construction bids for the project were way over budget.

I’m not worried about the streetcar’s feasibility or economic worth. I still believe the study from HDR, a company that advises businesses and cities on large projects, and the University of Cincinnati report that said the streetcar will be a massive economic boon for the city. That opinion will not change until I see real evidence to the contrary.

But I am worried about what’s now become a trend of hurdles with the project. With problems coming from every level of government, it seems the project falls behind just as often as it progresses. The latest crisis struck Feb. 12 when construction bids for the streetcar project came in $26 million to $43 million over budget — just two weeks after the city looked to be in the clear when it finally reached a deal with Duke Energy over a separate conflict.

In fairness, many of the streetcar’s problems have been caused by outside forces. The biggest offender was Gov. John Kasich, who pulled $52 million in federal funding that was originally allotted to the project by former Gov. Ted Strickland. Losing the federal grant took a massive chunk out of the streetcar project, forcing local officials to draw down the project’s scope and directly contributing to the common criticism that the streetcar line doesn’t go far enough. (The original plan went from downtown to uptown — connecting the city’s top two job centers.)

Altogether, the problems present a worrying trend that suggests Cincinnati is incapable of following the success of progressive cities like San Francisco or Portland, Ore.

The issues with Duke Energy are one such example. For years now, the city and Duke have disputed who has to pay for moving utility lines to accommodate for the streetcar, with each side refusing to burden the cost. From an outside perspective, it seems like getting Cincinnati’s major electrical company on-board should have been a top priority for local officials very early in the process, yet a deal was only reached a couple weeks ago to settle the dispute in court.

What makes the situation so strange is Duke is one of the biggest private supporters of the Cincinnati streetcar. The company gave $3.5 million to the streetcar as part of its 2008 Electric Security Plan, on the condition the project creates 25 jobs with the money. That’s the most private support the project has received to date. 

The problem goes back to 2010, when it was revealed the city severely underestimated how much it would cost to move utility lines. In federal grant applications, the city originally claimed moving the lines would cost $5 million. The estimates are now four times that amount.

That’s a huge failure on the city administration’s part, and it’s one that seems to be popping up again with the project’s construction bids. Once again, the city severely underestimated how much an aspect of the streetcar would cost, leading to more fears of delays and budget shortfalls.

The consequences of poor planning impact more than timetables and budgets; the issues actually threaten the streetcar’s existence. As all the problems pile up, businesses become less likely to support the streetcar, whether it’s financially or through construction bids, because they fear opponents will eventually win out and the project will abruptly come to an end.

Even worse, the delays empower critics. The problems give ammo to streetcar opponents and put supporters in the uncomfortable position of leveling criticism at the city and streetcar — a position that allows critics to ignore any context and falsely claim, “I told you so.”

But it’s a risk supporters have to take. At this point, the streetcar’s many hurdles are forming a clear trend, and it’s up to the city to make sure it stops. 

Other News and Stuff

Gov. John Kasich appointed a former Republican to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, even though the final seat is legally required to go to a Democrat. The move immediately prompted criticism from media and Democrats, who labeled it another example of Kasich cronyism.

Despite fears of bankruptcy and lower casino revenues than originally projected, the state gave the go-ahead to Cincinnati’s Horseshoe Casino. The casino will bring jobs and tourists downtown, giving Cincinnati another chance to show off recent developments around the city.


[email protected] or @germanrlopez

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