A majority of Cincinnati City Council voted Monday to shift $29 million in city funds to the $110 million streetcar project – including $15 million that neighborhood leaders believed was going to go to improvements in their neighborhoods.
City administrators told council members that the money would allow the city to go ahead with relocation of utility lines and pipes along the streetcar route through downtown and Over-the-Rhine, while the city continues to try to resolve a dispute with Duke Energy over who should pay for that.
After a three-and-half-hour session of council’s Budget and Finance Committee where dozens of streetcar supporters and opponents spoke their minds to council, the funding plan passed on a 6-3 vote.
Voting in favor were committee chairwoman Roxanne Qualls, Laure Quinlivan, Yvette Simpson, Cecil Thomas, Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach.
The three opponents were council members Charlie Winburn, Christopher Smitherman and P.G. Sittenfeld.
What the council majority approved was this – taking $15 million from the sale of the Blue Ash Airport and shifting $14 million in tax increment financing dollars from other projects to pay for the utility work that will allow the streetcar project to stay on track for its planned 2015 opening.
A number of speakers from several city neighborhoods said that money from the Blue Ash Airport sale would be better spent on neighborhood improvements, such as street repair.
“Nobody should see this vote as a choice between the streetcar and Over-the-Rhine and the rest of our wonderful neighborhoods,’’ Simpson said. “We can do both.”
City manager Milton Dohoney said the financing plan his administration proposed was necessary to keep the project on schedule.
“It will allow us to order the streetcars, build it and move on,’’ Dohoney said. “This tees it all up; and allows us to move forward.”
Smitherman said shifting the Blue Ash Airport funds to the streetcar project was “at the end of the day, a broken promise.”
“Those dollars were promised to the neighborhoods and there is no guarantee that they will ever be returned,’’ Smitherman said.
Winburn said that even if the city wins its dispute with Duke Energy, the utility company will simply pass the costs on to consumers.
“Let’s assume the city is going to win,” Winburn asked Dohoney. “And Duke is going to pass on the increases to our citizens. Do you really support this?”
Dohoney said only that Winburn’s remark was “speculative.”
For nearly two hours, 51 people – nearly evenly split between opponents and proponents of the streetcar, had a chance to address council, two minutes at a time.
Rev. Doc Foster, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference, told council it should “keep its promise to the neighborhoods.”
“Now you want to moon-walk backwards on this,’’ Foster said. “Our neighborhoods are hurting.”
Businessman John Schneider, one of the prime movers behind the streetcar, told council that opponents “no longer fear it will fail. They fear it will succeed.”
“No modern streetcar project has ever failed in the United States,’’ Schneider said, urging council to approve the financing plan.