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Counter Points is written by WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson. In it, he shares insights on political news on the local, state and national level that impacts the 2020 election. Counter Points is delivered once a week on Wednesdays and will cease publication soon after the November election is decided.

Mayor Cranley Vetoes Free Streetcar Rides

Bill Rinehart

Cincinnati City Council is expected to vote Wednesday to override a mayoral veto of an ordinance making streetcar rides free for the next 60 days.  

Council approved the measure Tuesday by a 7-2 vote during a special council session. Mayor John Cranley vetoed it right after the meeting. 

The interim measure will make the streetcar fare free while work on a permanent plan is implemented. 

Council Member Chris Seelbach said that should have happened in June when a council majority approved a budget measure that included eliminating streetcar fares.

"At no time did anyone from the administration say hold on, you got to do more; you have to make changes to the municipal code, there's more things you need to do," Seelbach said. "No one from the solicitor's, the manager's office, DOTE, no one in our discussion said there was more that needed to be done."

Once the interim measure is in place, council will have to approve changes to the city's municipal code for free streetcar rides.

The streetcar system will begin operating Wednesday after being shut down earlier this year because of concerns about COVID-19. 

People will have to pay fares until council acts on the latest veto. If council overrides it as expected, the fares would likely stop once the information is communicated to streetcar operators.

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, who has opposed the streetcar from the beginning, cast one of the "no" votes on the ordinance.

"What we're here to talk about is making the streetcar free; it is not free," Smitherman said. "The other 51 neighborhoods will be paying the bill for people to ride the streetcar. It is never free."

Seelbach and Council Member Greg Landsman had both predicted the mayor's veto, and Seelbach even thought it would come late Wednesday, so the council would have to wait another week to attempt an override. By the City Charter, overrides can only happen at regularly scheduled council meetings. They cannot be considered during special sessions.

"If you had a superpower, it would be fighting this project, that would be your superpower," Landsman said to Mayor Cranley. "It is amazing to me how intent on making this an issue always that you are."

Cranley offered this response:

"When you said that I was intending to make this a fight, that's not true," Cranley said. "I told you how to avoid a fight. And you guys introduced legislation after legislation and special sessions, because that's the North Star of the City Council."

Cranley had proposed parking the streetcars through at least July 2021 because of the city's general fund budget shortfall and reduced ridership with fewer people in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

Cranley's plan was to spend $3 million to maintain the streetcars and the system's infrastructure. But City Council adopted a budget of $5 million to run the system with passengers and make rides free. Council had to find about $1.5 million to close that gap.

Council could also vote to override a Cranley veto from August on that additional funding. Council had approved using tax increment finance money from Downtown and OTR to cover the expense, and Cranley rejected that.

For now, the additional operating money is coming from the city's transit income tax fund. Council approved that plan in June, which Cranley also vetoed.  Council overrode that veto in August, so that's the temporary funding source until council can act on the TIF money override.

Jay Hanselman brings more than 10 years experience as a news anchor and reporter to 91.7 WVXU. He came to WVXU from WNKU, where he hosted the local broadcast of All Things Considered. Hanselman has been recognized for his reporting by the Kentucky AP Broadcasters Association, the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and the Ohio AP Broadcasters.