Killing streetcar is a tougher chore for Cranley

Nov 30, 2013

It’s a truism in politics: Running for office is the relatively easy part; the governing part is where it gets a little tricky.

John Cranley, the Democrat and former councilman who is sworn into office as Cincinnati’s 69th mayor today, has been around long enough to know this.

He came out of the November 5 election with a big win – 16 percentage points over rival and fellow Democrat Roxanne Qualls.

And he came out like a ball of fire.

Scuttle the parking lease deal?

No problem.

Fire City Manager Milton Dohoney and hire Parks Director Willie Carden as the new one?

Piece of cake.

Deep-six the $133 million streetcar project, his number one campaign issue and promise to the voters?

Not so easy. No walk in the park here.

Try as he may, Cranley is looking for the key that will turn off the streetcar, while the work goes on in the bitter cold of the streets of Over-the-Rhine and downtown at a frantic pace.

First the federal government, which has kicked in about $45 million for the streetcar, told city officials that the federal money couldn’t be “re-purposed” for other projects; and that, if the new city council votes to end streetcar construction, it will give up the money and return the portion that has already been spent.

Now, a newly-created streetcar committee, headed by the new vice mayor, David Mann, is expected to act to pause construction while a cost-benefit analysis is done. That happens at noon Monday; and will come before the new council later in the afternoon.

Then, the out-going administration of City Manager Milton Dohoney (the one Cranley fired), came up with a rather dismal cost-benefit analysis of cancelling the project. The administration told council that cancelation of the streetcar would cost $30 million to $46 million, in addition to the $33 million that has already been spent.

Cranley has been counting on having six of nine members of the new council – also to be sworn in today – to pass an emergency ordinance (which takes six votes) to chuck the project.

The old council, with a pro-streetcar majority threw Cranley a curve ball Tuesday by voting, as an emergency ordinance, to go forward with the project.

Then, to make things worse for Cranley, one of the votes he had been counting on, fellow Democrat P.G. Sittenfeld, announced that he no longer supports stopping construction.

What changed his mind, Sittenfeld said, was the possibility that the city won’t have to pay anywhere from $3.5 million to $4.5 million a year to operate the streetcar.

Fares would take care of part of it, Sittenfeld said, but he also suggested creating a “special improvement district” where property owners along the route would have to pay higher taxes than other property owners.

Now, it’s not clear at all if Cranley can get the six votes necessary to pause or completely end the streetcar project with an emergency ordinance.

If he had five votes, it wouldn’t go into effect for 30 days and the work would continue. And streetcar supporters, of whom there are many, could have time to gather signatures for the petition to place the ordinance on the ballot next year for an up-or-down vote. If they did that, the ordinance passed by the old council would remain in effect and the streetcar work would continue.

So how many does Cranley have?

New Republican member Amy Murray is solidly against the street car. So, too, is independent Christopher Smitherman. And Republican Charlie Winburn, despite some waffling last week after Sittenfeld’s announcement, ran on an anti-streetcar platform and would be hard-pressed to change his mind now.

Democrats Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young, and Yvette Simpson are are on record as pro-streetcar votes.

That leaves two newly-elected council members as the question marks, although Cranley is counting on them on the vote to put the project on hold for 30 days.

Mann, who is returning to council after a 22-year absence, was critical of the project during the campaign, told WVXU Wednesday that he wants to “take an objective look at the difference between what it would cost to stop and what it would cost to go forward; and then make a reasonable decision.” That, Mann said, could take from 30 to 60 days.

“Let’s test (streetcar project manager John) Deatrick’s numbers,’’ Mann said. “if the number that we save is small, it’s going to be hard not to stop it.”

That sounds like vote for putting the project on hold.

Flynn has said he wants to stop construction while council spends 30 to 60 days looking at the numbers. But the federal government has said a pause would amount to cancelling; and want their $45 million back.

And Flynn has said he is intrigued by Sittenfeld’s idea of a “special improvement district” to help pay for the operation of the streetcar once it is built. Flynn, most people think, would vote to halt the project while a study is done.

What Cranley would like to do in his first week – or weeks - in office is put an end to the streetcar project once and for all.

Friday, he put out a statement saying he expects spending on the streetcar to be halted, at least for now.

"We are going to stop spending $50,000 per day on the streetcar until we have an open, transparent accounting of the true cost of cancelation versus continuation,'' Cranley said in his written statement. "We owe it to the voters who elected us to be responsible with their dollars and ensure that we choose the best course forward."

What he will probably get is a council vote to pause construction while council studies the costs. But without six votes and an emergency ordinance, pro-streetcar supporters will go out and use those 30 days to gather signatures for a referendum. And, if they are successful, the work will go on.

As they say, campaign promises are easy. Governing is tough.