Council debate to pause streetcar project will continue

Dec 2, 2013

Cincinnati Council will hold another special session Tuesday afternoon to continue discussion about pausing construction and spending on the streetcar project.

A streetcar committee has approved 11 ordinances and a motion to suspend the project.  But when the full Council tried to vote Monday evening on the items, there were not enough Council members willing to suspend the rule requiring ordinances be read at three different meetings.  So the special meeting Tuesday afternoon will be for the second readings of the ordinances.  The Council will like take final votes Wednesday afternoon.

Vice Mayor David Mann, who chairs the streetcar committee, explained what will happen once the project is “paused.”

“There then will be an independent review of the streetcar project,” Mann said.  “When that’s completed in a short time frame, the decision will be made whether the pause will be made permanent or whether the pause will be lifted.”

Streetcar supporters packed the council chamber for both the committee meeting and the special Council session.  Many of them also spoke and urged Council not to pause the project.

“Just take 36 or 48 hours, whatever it takes to get a company in here to do an independent number, and then just make a fact based decision,” Messer said.  “And don’t complicate it with 11 different ordinances where there’s dollars tied too, that just makes government more complex than it needs to be.”

Many also said “pausing” the streetcar project for the review was the same as cancelling it all together.  Council Member Yvette Simpson agreed that if the goal is to kill the proposal, why wait 30 days to do it?

“If we’re going to be done with it and you’re going to vote the same way in 30 days if the numbers are confirmed, then let’s just be done,” Simpson said.  “You have the votes to do it.  Let’s not waste our time and all these people's time with a bunch of rhetoric.”

Mayor John Cranley based a large portion of his recent campaign on stopping the streetcar project.  His opinion has not changed.

“I think cancellation is what we should do,” Cranley said.  “But a majority of Council wants to pause and ask questions.  I am trying to honor that.”

The ordinances Council will consider all contain monetary appropriations related to “pausing” the streetcar project.  Those appropriations would prevent streetcar supporters from collecting petition signatures to place the measures on the ballot.  Ordinances that contain appropriations are not subject to a ballot referendum.

However Council Member Christopher Smitherman and Cranley both repeated Monday night that they are willing to work with streetcar supporters to place the issue on the May ballot.  Six members of Council can place Charter amendments on the ballot without residents having to collect signatures to get an issue before voters.  But Council Member Chris Seelbach says even if the issue was on the May ballot and was approved, the current project may be dead because federal officials will have pulled funding for it.

The Federal Transit Administration is holding additional federal grant money for the streetcar project.

“The administrator decided to restrict further access to the federal project funds until the FTA received an affirmative signal from the city’s newly elected officials that the city intends to proceed with the project on the agreed-upon scheduled,” Marisol Simon, FTA Regional Administrator wrote in an e-mail.  “This measure was taken to protect the taxpayer funds not yet drawn down by the city from being subject to a potential debt collection action.”

Simon’s e-mail was sent to Terry Garcia Crews, the CEO and General Manager of Metro, which is the pass through agency for the city’s federal streetcar funding.  Federal funding for the streetcar project totals about $45 million.

Meanwhile, the Haile Foundation has offered to underwrite the entire cost of analysis of funding options for the streetcar.  

Foundation representative Eric Avner said in an e-mail to incoming city manager Willie Carden that the foundation is supportive of the streetcar system, and are willing to help with all aspects of the project.

“An adult conversation needs to occur before its reckless cancellation,” Avner said in the e-mail.  “This will definitely cause us (the foundation) to pause and reconsider whether the city can be a trusted partner, putting many of our planned future investments in jeopardy.”

Avner cited the carousel at Smale Riverfront Park, the renovation of the Globe Building and Music Hall as examples.

City Council is being asked to spend $250,000 to pay a consultant to do an independent evaluation of the streetcar project.  The Haile Foundation offer would allow the review to be done without any city expense.