A Cincinnati City Council majority signed a motion Wednesday by Councilwoman Roxanne Qualls that would severely limit possible funding sources for a proposed streetcar system and require a commitment to extend it to the uptown area, but some members already are having second thoughts after reading the fine print.
Qualls circulated a motion among council offices that, if approved, would prohibit council from using money from the city's capital projects budget to build the system if it jeopardizes other previously approved projects. It would also prohibit using money from the city's general fund budget to subsidize its operation once built.
Because the capital projects and general fund budgets are the city’s primary sources of money, critics say the motion essentially would prohibit any public funding, making it unlikely the system ever would be built.
Qualls disputes that assertion but said a better, more detailed financing plan should be crafted before council approves the streetcar project. Also, council must be assured it won’t jeopardize funding for other development projects.
“In order to be fiscally responsible and ensure its success, the council wants the manager to present a sustainable and reasonable financing plan,” Qualls said by telephone this evening.
Some council members said the motion’s wording requires that a streetcar loop be built that connects downtown to the uptown area near the University of Cincinnati and local hospitals at the same time that a previously discussed loop is built that travels from Over-the-Rhine to the riverfront. Such an extension would add at least $80 million to the project’s $102 million cost.
But Qualls said that’s not accurate; the motion requires that financing be in place to build the uptown loop before the downtown loop is built, not that the two loops have to be constructed at the same time.
“We don’t want to be stuck by doing the first phase and not have the financial where-with-all to get it to uptown,” Qualls said.
Six members (Qualls, Laketa Cole, John Cranley, David Crowley, Chris Monzel and Cecil Thomas) signed the motion; three members (Jeff Berding, Chris Bortz and Leslie Ghiz) were opposed.
Later Wednesday, however, some supporters reconsidered after discussions about the motion’s impact. A few members began expressing doubts, stating the funding restrictions could delay or kill the project.
Mayor Mark Mallory, who supports the streetcar project, will meet privately Thursday morning with Qualls and some members who oppose her motion to broker a compromise, sources said. The issue will be discussed Thursday afternoon at city council’s meeting, and the group probably will set a timetable on when a vote will be taken.
Qualls said some council members are being alarmist about her motion, and the group must be prudent by insisting on a strict funding formula.
“We’re now to the point where a lot of people’s enthusiasm has to be translated into methodical and deliberate study,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure already on the city’s operating budget. I think a majority of council wants to see (streetcars) happen, but we need to be responsible and do due diligence for the taxpayers.”
For the past few months, city council has debated a $102 million proposal to build a streetcar system through parts of downtown and Over-the-Rhine, part of a plan to spark redevelopment of vacant or underutilized parcels. The 3.9-mile zig-zag loop would link Findlay Market to Great American Ball Park, with numerous stops along the way. Future segments have been suggested for uptown and Northern Kentucky. If approved, construction could begin by year’s end and the system could be operational by late 2010.
An early version of the financing plan created by City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. relied heavily on tax increment financing (TIF) revenues — taxes generated by new development along the streetcar route. The plan called for $25 million to come from TIF funds and the city’s capital project budget; $11 million from the sale of Blue Ash Airport, which was owned by Cincinnati; $10 million from state grants; and $31 million from private contributions from area corporations.
Due to concerns by some developers that the streetcar system might deplete TIF money for other projects, though, city officials are tweaking the plan to use less TIF money and likely will borrow more cash. Other ideas also being considered include imposing a special assessment fee on surface parking lots for their “wasted development potential.”
— Kevin Osborne