Local News
11:00 pm
Sat December 14, 2013

Cranley cracks the door open (a little) to streetcar

OK, let’s get this straight.

This new mayor of Cincinnati, John Cranley, ran this fall and won big on a platform where the top three priorities were this:

  1. Kill the streetcar project.
  2. Kill the streetcar project
  3. Kill the streetcar project.

Several days ago, he seemed well on the way to doing just that.

Then, Thursday, he cracked the door open just a bit by telling streetcar supporters if they could come up with a way to raise $80 million for operating costs so that it wouldn’t come out of the city’s budget, the construction could be completed.

It is a big task, but one streetcar supporters say they can pull off.

A 5-4 majority of city council had voted to halt construction of the $133 million, 3.6 mile loop from the riverfront to Findlay Market until an independent cost-benefit analysis could be done.

If the numbers showed that it would be more cost effective to finish the project then scuttle it, council members like Kevin Flynn and David Mann said, they might be willing to go forward.

Do it quickly, the federal government told the city. If it’s not done by Dec. 19, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) said, we will pull $45 million in federal funding and make the city pay back the $4.5 million in federal funds already spent.

Cranley was in Washington Friday; and said he met with FTA officials. They told him they would not extend the Dec. 19 deadline. Cranley had promised streetcar proponents that he would ask for an extension. But Cranley said FTA administrator Peter Rogoff agreed to talk to a leading pro-streetcar advocate about extending the deadline.

The FTA told Cranley the city wouldn't have to come up with the plan for operating the streetcar until 2016, but Cranley, in a press release Friday, said the federal government would require the city to operate the system for 25 years, which he said would mean others "would have no incentive to contribute to the operating cost."

"A legally binding agreement to cover the system's operating costs with private funding must be in place before construction can continue,'' Cranley said in his press release from Washington.

If the Dec. 19 deadline holds, Cranley and streetcar opponents on council have said, that would kill the streetcar once and for all.

Meanwhile, We Believe in Cincinnati, a pro-streetcar group which drew about 1,000 people to a Washington Park rally on the day Cranley was inaugurated, launched a petition campaign to get 5,700 valid signatures to place a charter amendment on the May ballot which would require the project to go forward. And they are dead certain they can do that before the federal government’s drop-dead date.

Momentum seemed to be shifting to the pro-streetcar side.

Then, on Thursday morning, Cranley did something that seemed, on the surface, very odd, but may well have been an act of political genius.

He called a city hall press conference and surrounded himself with leaders of city workers’ unions, including police, firefighters and one fellow from Public Services who had spent the past several days in the freezing cold, plowing snow off city streets.

Cranley offered the pro-streetcar forces a deal.

The deal was this: If you can, with my help, find private donors who will guarantee and deliver the estimated $80 million it will take to operate and maintain the streetcar over the next 30 years, the city will spend the capital money to finish it.

“I have met with the leaders of the streetcar supporters; and I’m here to say I’m willing to partner with them if they can cover the operating costs,’’ Cranley said. “People have asked me if there is any middle ground; and I’m here to try.”

Ryan Messer, a leader of We Believe in Cincinnati, is one of those streetcar supporters who met with Cranley Wednesday night. He said the mayor is being disingenuous when he suggests that all $80 million must come from the private sector.

“John is a politician and not a businessman,’’ Messer said. “Sometimes, politicians make news and statements that are not realistic.”

Messer said he and other streetcar proponents proposed to Cranley a “multi-prong” approach – one that combines about $1 million a year from ridership fees, $1 million a year from advertising on the streetcars, possibly some state money and what amounts to “naming rights” from a corporation of a private foundation.

“By Monday or so, we should be able to present a plan to do this,’’ Messer said.

If the plan were acceptable to a majority of council and it were passed by council before the federal deadline on Thursday, maybe the streetcar project could go forward.

What the city won’t do – can not do – is to pick up the costs of running and maintaining the streetcar out of the city’s operating budget, Cranley said.

Pointing to the union workers behind him, Cranley said “what I care about is that we reduce the violence but increasing the cops on the street. What I care about is that we reduce (the fire department’s) brown-outs. What I care about is that your roads are drivable and your garbage is picked up.”

The city, Cranley said, can’t sacrifice basic services to pay for the operation of a streetcar.

Streetcar supporter Don Mooney, a Democrat and lawyer, said he was astounded by what he heard.

“When was the last time you saw a mayor go on TV and say that our murder rate is going up and that our fire service is bad?,’’ Mooney said. “It was remarkable.”

It was also a shrewd political move, said political scientist Gene Beaupre of Xavier University, who has watched Cincinnati politics unfold for decades.

“I was blown away,’’ Beaupre said of Cranley’s performance. “You don’t see Cincinnati politicians be as strategic and agile as this guy.”

The other side, Beaupre said, “was gaining momentum. So Cranley stands in front of the media and says, ‘OK, it’s up to them.’ And to array the public workers behind him to make his point was masterful.”

Cranley said he would do what he could to help the pro-streetcar people find the private sector dollars. He even said he would contact federal officials about possibility extending the Dec. 19 deadline. He did that Friday in Washington and the federal officials refused to budge.

What Cranley did Thursday put the task of coming up with a guaranteed investment of $80 million from the private sector for the next 30 years squarely on the shoulders of the pro-streetcar people.

Pro-streetcar advocates like Messer say they can do it.

Others say it is an almost impossible task.

Either way, Cranley gave himself some political cover – he opened the door to the pro-streetcar crowd just a crack, but that door could slam shut just as quickly.

And the mayor could then say, “I gave you a chance, but it didn’t work. Streetcar over. End of story.”