Cincinnati City Council and more than 100 local residents gathered in Council chambers Wednesday for a special session on one of the city's hottest political footballs: The proposed Cincinnati Streetcar
On May 3, Mayor Mark Mallory and city manager Milton Dohoney released details on a revised streetcar plan, which adapts the original $128 million dollar plan to account for the loss of state funding earlier this year. The new plan breaks the Banks-to Uptown streetcar line into phases, and proposes a $99 million first phase that would run from Fountain Square
to Findlay Market
. As additional funds become available, the line would be extended to reach the Banks and Uptown via Vine Street and a to-be-planned circulator loop.
The announcement prompted streetcar opponents on Council, Republicans Charlie Winburn, Amy Murray, Leslie Ghiz and Wayne Lippert, to call for Wednesday's special session. In a press release, Winburn called the meeting a chance to hold streetcar supporters accountable for the money spent on - and planned to be used for - the project.
At the meeting's start, City Manager Dohoney presented details of the revised streetcar plan, including notes about case studies, peer reviews conducted and funding sources that would support the streetcar without touching the city's general fund. He mentioned multiple times that the original streetcar plan and route remain essentially unaltered, but have been broken into phases to adapt to the new funding situation. But funding, scope and city authority became focal points of several questions after Dohoney finished.
Councilmember Murray started with questions about appropriation of Banks Tax increment Financing District funds for the project.
"The argument put forward to justify stealing from the Banks to fund the streetcar was that the streetcar would benefit the Banks," she said. "Now that it's not going to the Banks, how do you justify this?"
Dohoney reiterated that the Banks-to-Uptown plan remains intact, but would now be built in phases. "The vision for where the streetcar's going has not changed at all," he said, adding that the initial route still comes within three blocks of the Banks, a distance research suggests would still wrap it in the streetcar's economic boost radius.
Winburn raised an array of questions, ranging from details about funding to the administration's authority to pursue the project and its associated funds. While Dohoney referred financial questions to the city's finance office, he responded, again, that 12 council ordinances and one resolution had already uthorized the work to begin.
"These authorized the administration to plan, design and construct the streetcar," Dohoney said. "The direction we were given says to avoid the general fund, and we've managed to do that. The administration has authorized us to advance the project."
Councilmember Lippert asked if council had considered 'worst-case scenarios' for a streetcar, noting Detroit's expensive and little-used People Mover system. Dohoney prompted some laughter with his response:
"I'd admit Detroit is a worst-case scenario for a lot of things," he said, adding "I can't tell you every city that does a streetcar doesn't have downsides. But we're plugged into the streetcar community, and we have not found a city that says, 'this was not worth it; there were downsides.'"
Council then opened the floor to more than two hours' worth of public comments. The vast majority of the 45 speakers expressed support for the streetcar, with many telling how they'd bought or launched businesses along the route in hopes of leveraging its projected economic boost to Over-the-Rhine.
Jean-François Flechet, owner of Taste of Belgium waffle bakery and cafes, said that his decision to open a café at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and his plans for a third location in the city are based on the streetcar route.
"I love the idea of being able to take the streetcar to my businesses, and not have to drive," he said.
Flechet also noted that the lack of parking at Findlay Market - a planned stop along the first-phase route - is a problem that could be directly solved by the streetcar.
"You see people come in, who are frustrated because they've been waiting, they don't stay as long as they might," he said.
Other streetcar proponents fired back at the Republican council members. "I'm amazed by the criticisms I hear," said resident Edward Osborne. "It's penny-wise and pound-foolish."
Only about five speakers raised opposition to the project. Rev. Doc Foster called on council to use the funds for streets, police and fire services. "We need to put that money where it will support real jobs," he said. "We can't afford the streetcar, Mayor." Realtor Kathleen Norris suggested the City needs to consider the bigger, national picture where other cities are currently evaluating streetcar projects.
"If we're not as future-oriented and aggressive as the 80 other cities, we will watch our status erode," said Norris.
At the end, Mallory thanked the attendees. "Every single speaker who commented here did so because they care about Cincinnati," he said. "In any public forum, that's the most you could ask for."
Winburn said he'd likely retract his call for an additional special session after this meeting, and appeared to make comments to clarify his purpose for calling the meeting. "This was really about fiscal accountability," he said. "I just want to make sure we don't bankrupt the city."
Writer: Matt Cunningham