Mayor Wants to Keep Cincy Street Car Line Closed

Cincinnati’s mayor is recommending that the city streetcar line remain closed during the next fiscal year.

The streetcar line last carried passengers on March 30. At the time officials said that was due to the difficulty of sanitizing the five cars used on the line.

However, Cincinnati Metro buses have continued to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some supporters of the streetcar suspect that lingering antagonistic city officials are behind the move to shut down the streetcar line for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, as a backdoor way to kill it.

City council member David Mann, chairman of the budget committee, said he hopes the streetcar resumes operation eventually but said the city has other pressing needs.

“So, I would prefer we circle back around that question in a few weeks,” he said.

But transit supporter Derek Bauman argues there is no need to keep the 3.6-mile streetcar line closed and he fears the city administration wants to inflict harm on the system.

The longer it remains closed, some fear, the less likely that previous riders will use it again.

The Cincinnati Bell Connector opened in September 2016 between downtown and the Over the Rhine neighborhood.

The budget proposed by Mayor John Cranley would allocate $2.9 million to maintain the streetcar infrastructure for a year but passengers would not be allowed to board the occasional streetcar runs that would be made.

The current fiscal year budget for the streetcar line is $4.6 million.

In the next fiscal year the mayor wants to divert $2 million in parking meter revenue and fines that would have gone to the streetcar into the general fund.

The city expects parking revenue overall to drop in fiscal year 2021 due to the lingering effects of the pandemic combined with the economic recession.

Cranley long has been an opponent of the streetcar and tried to kill it in 2013.

Cincinnati received $45 million in funding from the Federal Transit Administration to pay for the $148 million streetcar line.

When the major sought to scrap the streetcar project seven years ago the FTA threatened to demand the city pay back what it had received.

The city council voted to overrule the mayor and the streetcar project was completed.

The Cranley administration argues that keeping the streetcar line in operable condition even though passengers are not allowed to ride would not be a violation of the FTA grant agreement, which requires Cincinnati to operate the streetcar line for 21 more years.

The proposes streetcar budget does not project receiving any revenue from streetcar fares, advertising or naming rights money from Cincinnati Bell.

It also assumes that operator Transdev will agree to take about half of the money owed to it under the contract, which is $1.8 million.

Some streetcar supporters have suggested resuming service with shorter hours of operation and using a surplus of $5 million in the city’s transit fund.

Bauman fears the city’s moves will damage its relationship with the FTA. Cincinnati is expected to seek millions in funding from the FTA to help construct a bus rapid transit line that voters approved last year.

“It’s outrageous,” Bauman said. “Why are we risking the possibility of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants for projects because of philosophical hatred for the project?”

The streetcar was the eighth-most ridden Metro transit route in 2019, with ridership increasing by 12 percent over the 2018 level.

During the first 11 weeks of 2020, ridership was up 18 percent although patronage has trailed initial projections used to justify building the line.

Some streetcar supporters have accused the city of mismanaging the handling of the streetcar network in its early months of operation, including failing to address cars and trucks blocking the streetcar.

They also say the city has yet to conduct a study of the economic effect of the streetcar project.

The Cincinnati Business Courier reported in 2016 that developers and building owners made $160 million in investments in 183 properties directly on the streetcar line.

A survey of property owners found 60 percent saying the streetcar was a factor in their decision to invest, accounting for $25 million of those dollars.

Council member Mann said the streetcar budget should be reviewed by the budget committee after it has completed its review of the overall city budget for the next fiscal year and he said he still favors having the streetcar line.

“I think there’s more pluses than minuses,” Mann said. “We’ve got the Haile Foundation money to protect. I think we’ll do a better job if we deal with the streetcar issues later.”

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