Merry Christmas, Cincinnati! Streetcar project resumes work


Cincinnati streetcar on order from builder CAF. Simulation: City of Cincinnati.

Cincinnati streetcar on order from builder CAF. Simulation: City of Cincinnati.

For supporters of urban rail, it’s been a clenched-teeth political action movie in Cincinnati, as newly elected Mayor John Cranley tried to implement his campaign promise to pull the plug on the city’s streetcar project — even though construction was well under way, tracks had already been laid in the street, and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) was threatening to demand repayment of of millions of dollars in grants if the project were cancelled.

Besides the new mayor, the election of three new councilmembers meant a council majority against the rail project, and on December 4th, the council voted to “pause” further work pending an independent audit by consulting firm KPMG. In response, the FTA issued an ultimatum: Resume the project by Dec. 19th, or forfeit the federal grant and pay back funds already transferred.

Meanwhile, the prospect of scuttling an ongoing project and wasting funds already invested sparked a local grassroots rebellion involving not just rail project supporters but a wider spectrum of Cincinnatians. A powerful mobilization for a referendum on a city charter change to require completion of the rail project collected roughly twice the number of signatures required — also attracting national media attention. This show of force seems to have helped in starting to move councilmembers’ leanings.

Recently laid Cincinnati streetcar trackage in Elm St. on Nov. 8th. Original granite pavers are being reinstalled to restore historic appearance. Photo: Travis Estell (Flickr).

Recently laid Cincinnati streetcar trackage in Elm St. on Nov. 8th. Original granite pavers are being reinstalled to restore historic appearance. Photo: Travis Estell (Flickr).

In addition, as described by a New York Times article (Dec. 22nd), “KPMG’s audit showed that completing the line would cost the city $68.9 million; canceling would run between $16.3 million and $46.1 million, not including the potential costs of litigation, which could be astronomical.” Thus, noted the Times, streetcar proponents were able to argue that “The city could spend millions of dollars and have a streetcar with the potential for return on investment, or have nothing to show for it while facing a tangle of lawsuits ….”

On the brink of the Dec. 19th deadline, the project was also reprieved by a written commitment, honchoed by the Haile U.S. Bank Foundation and involving roughly 15 private-sector backers, to cover as much as $9 million of the line’s operating costs over its first decade, if necessary.

On Dec. 19th, just hours from the FTA deadline, the Cincinnati city council voted 6-3 to resume the project. “We’re going to have a streetcar” Mayor Cranley announced at an afternoon news conference with new Councilman Kevin Flynn, who had spent days helping forge the private financing agreement.

It represented an amazing victory for the broad swath of Cincinnati streetcar supporters, who had turned out by the hundreds to gather many thousands of signatures on the referendum petition. It’s also recognized as a huge victory for rail advocacy and for urban livability, and a terrific model for communities throughout North America.

According to the Cincinnati Business Journal (Dec. 23rd), Work on the project resumes on Dec. 26th, with delivery of an additional set of rails on Elm St., and “The installation of rails will be underway again on Friday, as crews restart their jobs north of Findlay Market.”

More details on this issue are summarized in a recent online article on the Railway Age magazine website:

Cincinnati streetcar survives political turmoil

Another Railway Age article by Urban Rail Today co-principal Lyndon Henry draws a parallel between citizens’ efforts for urban rail in Austin, Texas and those in Cincinnati:

Cincinnati and Austin: Community urban rail proponents challenge City Hall

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