Cranley opens door to streetcar going forward

Dec 12, 2013

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, who campaigned and won on a promise to kill the $133 million streetcar project, cracked open to the door to a deal with streetcar supporters that could allow the project to go forward.

In a city hall press conference this morning, Cranley said he would work with streetcar supporters to find institutions or foundations in the private sector to pay the approximately $80 million it would take to maintain and operate the system.

Mayor John Cranley surrounded by city union leaders at a city hall press conference
Credit Ann Thompson / WVXU

It is not something the city can do without private help, Cranley said.

“I believe this community can’t afford to take on new liabilities that will last forever,’’ Cranley said.

Cranley said he met last night with leaders of We Believe in Cincinnati, a pro-streetcar group that is circulating petitions to put a streetcar amendment on the ballot. Cranley said he told them he would work with them to find private sector money to guarantee the operating costs.

It opened the door to the possibility of the 3.6 mile streetcar project going forward, but it is a door that could be slammed shut a week from today.

The Federal Transportation Administration has given city council until Dec. 19 to decide whether or not it intends to go forward or the federal government will pull its $45 million from the project.

“It is obviously a huge hurdle to pull this together in seven days,’’ Cranley said. “It may not be possible.”

Cranley said he would not be “angry or upset if the private sector said no. I wouldn’t blame them.” But he said the city would be willing to take on the capital costs of building the streetcar if the private sector is willing to take on operations and maintenance costs.

Cranley was surrounded at the press conference by officers of the unions representing city workers.

Cranley said the city could not absorb the $3.5 to $4.5 million annual cost of operating and maintaining the streetcar system without doing harm to basic services like fire, police, and public works.

The city has a “structurally unbalanced budget” that must be fixed; and the city can’t take on additional liabilities such as running a streetcar.

“Ninety-nine percent of what we do in the city is deliver basic services,’’ Cranley said.

Cranley said that streetcar supporters asked him if he could influence the federal government to extend the Dec. 19 deadline, perhaps to the end of the month. Cranley said he plans to talk to federal transportation officials today, but could offer no guarantees they would go along with an extension.

The mayor also said he had talks with officials from the Haile Foundation, a private foundation that has spent millions on civic projects; and has been a major backer of the Smale Riverfront Park and the Music Hall renovation. But he said he had no commitment from the foundation to help with the streetcar costs.

A new councilman, Charterite Kevin Flynn, joined Cranley at the press conference and said he would work with streetcar supporters to come up with private financing for the operating and maintenance costs.

“If we can shift the cost of running this from the operating budget, this may be the win-win that everyone is looking for,’’ Flynn said.

Last week, a council majority – including Flynn – voted to halt spending and work on the streetcar project until a cost analysis could be done. Council members Flynn and David Mann said they supported halting the project until they had solid numbers showing that it would cost more to shut it down than to continue.

Representatives of We Believe in Cincinnati could not be reached for comment immediately.

But council member Yvette Simpson listened to the Cranley press conference from the back of the room.

Afterwards, Simpson told reporters that “coming up with a guarantee of $80 million is very difficult.”

But, she said, “we are moving the ball. There are a lot of private sector people who want this to happen.”

But it will be “tough to get them to take on all the risk,’’ Simpson said. “You are going to have to give them something.”

Simpson said she would continue her own talks with the Haile Foundation and others in the private sector to find the money to operate the system.”