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Soapdish: Haile Mary Miracle?

streetcar progress on elm street
streetcar progress on elm street
In January 2012, almost two years ago, your humble Soapdish columnist penned the following introduction to yet another chapter in the long-running Cincinnati streetcar project:
 
Not surprisingly, we here at Soapbox are fervent supporters of the proposed Cincinnati streetcar project. Given such enthusiasm, it should come as no surprise to learn that this particular space has seen at least six separate columns in the past three years devoted to the streetcar—its obstacles, its promises, its fate. Chronicling the streetcar’s trials and tribulations reads like a Greek tragedy at times, with added metaphorical allusions to Lazarus, the mythical Phoenix and any other hackneyed, rise-from-the-ashes type literary clichés. Now, with last November’s defeat of the latest anti-streetcar ballot initiative, the questions you tend to hear most are: “When is construction going to start?” “When can I ride it?” “What’s happening?”  
 
Now, in column No. 8, in addition to the aforementioned metaphors, I would like to add allusions to Lear, Icharyus, Napoleon, Moby Dick, Russian novels and anything else you care to throw into this opus. 
 
The streetcar has been on an almost hourly news cycle for the past two weeks, teetering on the brink of extinction at the hands of a “new sheriff” at City Hall, only to be rousingly pulled from the precipice by its legions of supporters in a groundswell of grassroots, rah-rah, drum-rattling activism. 
 
Le Roi, C’est Moi
Since sliding into office on what he has termed a “mandate” of 16 percent of eligible voters, Mayor Cranley has summoned a visceral level of dedication, all aimed at halting the longstanding project in its proverbial tracks. Within 24 hours after being sworn into office, Cranley and his newly founded anti-streetcar coalition on Council (the so-called “Gang of 5”—Christopher Smitherman, Charlie Winburn, Amy Murray, David Mann and Kevin Flynn) swept into a hearing without even establishing rules, all dedicated to the singular goal of immediately killing the streetcar project. As Cranley was fond of saying at the time, “It’s no secret that I want to stop the project.” And stopping it-—regardless of the costs—seemed to be the name of the game. 
 
I sat through three straight days of streetcar hearings at the beginning of the month, the first three days of the new regime, and it was unlike anything ever witnessed at City Hall since, well, probably 2001. As former Vice Mayor/Councilman/”Mr. Cincinnati" emeritus Jim Tarbell observed, “This is probably the most extraordinary opening day in chambers that I have ever witnessed.” And that was not intended as a compliment. “Chaos du Jour” replaced Robert’s Rules of Orders; common sense and logic seemed elusive at best; personal recriminations among Council members flew fast and furious; and the diverse array of local residents who came out in support of the streetcar were—let’s be honest here-—persuasive, emotional, articulate and numerous. During the first hour of the newly formed and rule-less “Streetcar Committee,” headed up by a flustered and often red-faced Vice-Mayor David Mann, the Mayor baldly proclaimed: “In the absence of rules, there are no rules, the presiding officer makes the rules.” Along with his earlier edict that “The conversation [about the streetcar] is over,” it was an astounding “Le Roi, c’est Moi” kind of moment, and would be repeated consistently over the course of the next several days.
 
You Just Can’t Give Away Money in this Town
Covering the news from a media perspective required a Twitter-esque level of nimble agility. Indeed, by the third and final day of hearings fledgling Councilmember Kevin Flynn expressed exasperation that he only had an hour and a half or so to review a very generous proposal spearheaded by The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation. The proposal would have privately funded an audit of the project’s costs as well as continued to fund construction to the tune of $600,000. The proposal was flatly rejected. My immediate reaction, at the time, was that we had just blown $600,000 so Councilmember Flynn could “get up to speed.” [Editor’s note: Haile VP/Senior Program Manager Eric Avner also carries the title of “Chief Instigator & Advocate” here at Soapbox.]
 
It was legislative sausage-making at its messiest, and a wholly unproductive first week by the new Council and administration made remarkable only by the articulate, intelligent and impassioned speeches made by a variety of Cincinnatians—all overwhelmingly in support of the streetcar.
 
Despite the heartfelt pleas of support, the entire proceeding had an air of practiced, political theater—the outcome predetermined. Local Tea Party conservatives huddled in the wings, giddy with anticipation, and when the final votes were taken, it was as if a dark cloud had settled in over the city.
 
“Pause” for Concern
After the dust had settled, the Gang of 5 had voted to “pause” the streetcar construction in order to obtain an independent audit of the costs to terminate versus the costs to complete. The Mayor and Gang of 5 steadfastly refused to believe renowned and respected Project Manager John Deatrick’s numbers about cost to complete versus cancel, notwithstanding that the difference could be as little as $400,000 to complete. Deatrick previously testified that cancellation costs (excluding litigation) could easily reach $100 million—with zero to show for it (other than a huge black eye to the city’s image and a Pyrrhic victory for the Mayor). While the Mayor scoffed at Deatrick’s well-founded numbers, he and the Gang of 5 immediately jumped on Deatrick’s estimate that construction costs had been revised upward to $100,000 per day. That was a statement which was automatically elevated to unvarnished gospel at City Hall, notwithstanding that all of Deatrick's other numbers were dismissed as the desperate conjuring of a prior administration. The irony of this stance was not lost on anyone in attendance, including Councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld, who pointed out the hypocrisy.
 
From Sacred to Profane
Incoming Mayor Cranley flashed his Machiavellian chops in short order, passing the streetcar-pausing ordinances as appropriations, with random dollar amounts attached to each, thereby effectively squashing the people’s right to see a referendum while construction continued unabated. This end around on what had previously been referred to by candidate Cranley as the “people’s sacred right of referendum” was curiously transformed from the sacred to the profane, with but a few flicks of the legislative wand. 
 
The whole show was stunning in its calculated efficiency, leaving streetcar supporters looking for tire tracks on their backs after it was all over. So this is how democracy dies, not with a whimper but with a resounding bang?
 
But it was not over. 
 
Bowed but unbeaten, streetcar supporters were determnined to continue on, galvanized by the three days of hearings. Within days, “Believe in Cincy” had vowed to pursue a grassroots charter referendum. It should be noted that the Charter Amendment is distinct from the referendum process, in effect seeking to amend the City’s Charter requiring it to complete the streetcar, as well as mandating that the project’s operating expenses be funded by a public-private partnership as well as potential fees or assessments for those living near the route. One week after the “pause,” a town hall was held at First Lutheran Church on Washington Park. Supporters packed the church, receiving clipboards and marching orders in due course. On that first night, 450 clipboards went out, and 1,000-plus signature books were distributed (each with room for 24 signatures). The goal of the supporters was 12,000 signatures in three days, particularly optimistic in light of the season; however, their enthusiasm has continued unabated. By Saturday morning they had exceeded 6,000 signatures.
 
In the interim, accounting firm KPMG was charged with conducting the audit, instructed to assess the costs of cancellation versus completion as well as the 30-year operating costs. This was an interesting twist, however, as they will not be considering the streetcar’s estimated 2.7:1 return on investment, in the process effectively considering the costs but not the benefits. A cynic would be left with the impression that the game is fixed, that whatever streetcar supporters do, whatever objective data is presented, it will not be enough.
 
The Political Pivot
Then, this past Thursday, yet another bombshell was dropped. The Mayor indicated he would be willing to allow the project to proceed provided that the operational costs for the next 30 years (which he estimates at $80 million) were taken entirely off the city’s books (after accounting for fares, sponsorship, advertising, etc.). The Mayor indicated that, in the course of cocktail chatter and other conversations over the past week, he sensed a resolve in the private corporate and nonprofit community to keep this train on the track—an opportunity for the corporate community to at last step up to the plate.
 
To streetcar supporters, this was—again—like moving the goalposts when the playing field is slanted against you. The “compromise,” as described by the Mayor, was a Sysphean illusion at best. Any concession made on his part was basically to say that the “conversation was NOT over.” The City was holding the streetcar hostage in exchange for someone else committing to pay for 30 years of operational expenses. And what standard does this set for future infrastructure projects? Will the same analysis be made for the $200 million Western Hills Viaduct (which has to be built with city funds)? Will a consortium of West Side businesses step forth to fund its costs, not to mention 30 years of maintenance? How about  the MLK interchange? Do the private sponsors get the rewards as well as the benefits? Are they buying bonds to fund operations? The devil is in the details, not to mention it also turns the Mayor’s arguments against the parking lease on its head.
 
Many of those in the private and corporate community, including Avner, see this latest development as an elusive “ray of light.” As he commented to WCPO, “We've been talking with a number of people who are willing to solve that $3 million to $4 million gap every year. We know there's a way of doing that. There's 17 ways of doing that. There's some uniquely Cincinnati way of doing that.” 

Mayor Cranley would get a long sought political “out,” effectively saying that, if the streetcar gets built, he made lemonade out of lemons. On the flip side, getting buy-in from the private sector would be a huge boon to the project. This is something that has been glacially slow to appear in the past, but its reluctance has been steadily melting in the white hot crucible of local politics. By any metric, however, this is a positive development. A public-private partnership is a welcome addition to the project, and something that should have occurred long ago.
 
The Clock is Ticking
Keep in mind the streetcar is funded in part by $45 million in federal funds. That remains the giant elephant in the room, the fulcrum on which everything sits. The feds have indicated we have until December 19 to resume construction or that money is gone. They have indicated that they will yank the funds if the project stops. They have been unequivocal. The message is crystal clear. While time is not on the side of the streetcar, one could also say that the streetcar will not be operational for at least 18 months: Why do we need to have all of this lined up in a span of seven days or less. An estimated commitment of $60-80 million in collateralized underwriting for 30-year operational expenses seems like a hefty “ask.”
 
Brian Faber, the Federal Transporation Administration’s associate administrator for communications and congressional affairs had this to say: "Because more than $100 million of federal and local dollars are now at risk, the federal government has run out of flexibility on extending deadlines to the city. Unless Cincinnati takes the necessary actions to restart construction consistent with FTA’s letter of December 6, the federal funds committed to the project will be terminated on December 20 and collection actions will be initiated."
 
Nobody wants to be seen as the only city in the world to cancel not one but two transit infrastructure projects in the past 100 years. Already, national publications, including The New York Times, have taken note of this “culture war” brewing in Cincinnati. This would be a crippling blow to the Cincinnati business community and severely handicap the ability to attract world-class talent to the city. To think otherwise would be naive and insular.
 
Wednesday December 18 is the streetcar’s Day of Reckoning at City Hall. Will this be the year the Grinch steals progress once again in Cincinnati? Or is this the year Cincinnati buries the baggage of the failed subway for good and steps boldly forward into the 21st Century? Stay tuned. We are not done yet. In the immortal words of Jim Tarbell, “We all need to work together to do something to bring these smiles back. We’ve got to take the lid off of this project. We can do it.”  Show up on Wednesday and be heard.
 
Read more from Coston on Cincinnati's streetcar project here: 

On the Right Track, December 21, 2012
 
The Little Streetcar that Could," January 10, 2012
 
Streetcar Deja Vu,"  October 4, 2011
 
Take Up Arms, Cincinnati Under Attack!”  March 29, 2011

Of Dollars and Sense,” December 7, 2010
 
No, Nein, Nyet and Non on 9,”  March 20, 2009
 
A Streetcar Named Desire … or a Road to Nowhere?” February 17, 2009
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