Streetcar bids set off a wildfire in mayor's race

Feb 16, 2013

You had to know that this $110 million streetcar project was going to run straight down the middle of this year’s Cincinnati mayor’s race.

One candidate, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, has been an ardent supporter. The other major candidate, John Cranley, has been a vocal opponent.

At the moment, though, the streetcar appears to have jumped the tracks.

When the Enquirer reported this week that bids for construction of the tracks and station had come in anywhere from $26 million to $43 million over the city’s budget, it meant the city could either seek new bids or revise the cost of the streetcar upwards by a considerable amount.

The city’s already into this project to the tune of $42 million; and just signed an agreement with Duke Energy to move the utility lines, and let a judge decide whether the city or Duke pays for it.

A big increase in costs would send the opponents into apoplectic fury.

Cranley went off like a bottle rocket in the backyard on the Fourth of July.

“End the streetcar boondoggle now,’’ Cranley said in a Valentine’s Day press release.

Qualls – no doubt realizing that this potential cost increase would just fuel more opposition to the streetcar project she has been advocating since day one – fired off a letter to a City Manager Milton Dohoney and Mayor Mark Mallory.

In it, she took a cautionary tone toward the prospect of a higher cost, without abandoning her support of the project.

“If these new numbers are confirmed then I believe it is time for the city to step back, put the project through intensive value engineering, and bring the project’s costs back into line,’’ Qualls wrote. “I strongly urge you to bring in a project manager and/or team that has a proven record in bringing major construction projects in on time and on budget.”

The goal, Qualls said, “is to bring the streetcar into service in time for the (2015) All Star Game and on budget.”

While a majority of council has supported the project, Qualls said, “council has not given the administration a blank check.”

As you might imagine, this was not good enough for Cranley.

“With over $40 million already wasted and delays piling up, you would think the announcement that (the) streetcar is at least $26 million over budget would convince Roxanne Qualls that the project is a bad idea,’’ Cranley’s press release said.

“Roxanne Qualls just doesn’t get it,’’ Cranley said in the release. “She should be cancelling the project and trying to get our money back on the streetcar order. Instead she’s talking about wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on future phases.”

What this news of the over-sized bids will do to council’s support of the project remains to be seen. There is likely to be some major grumbling from some of the streetcar’s supporters on council.

And Dohoney, smack dab in the middle of a mayor’s race, is the man in the middle; the one who has to figure out some way to re-do this so that it does not break the bank.

The first phase of this project will start downtown by the riverfront and run through Over-the-Rhine. Ultimately, supporters want a second phase that will connect it to the Uptown area, where the University of Cincinnati and the hospitals – two of the city’s biggest employers – are located.

Opposition to the streetcar has been particularly strong on the city’s west side, where many citizens see nothing in spending all of this money that would benefit them in the least.

And Cranley is playing that card in the mayor’s race. That is where his base of support will be; and west siders unhappy with City Hall have a history of turning out in large numbers.

Big bucks have already been spent on this project. Jacking up the price tag at this point is the last thing mayoral candidate Qualls needs.

The unspoken message of Qualls’ letter was clear:

Fix this mess, unless you relish the prospect of a Mayor Cranley with the power to appoint a city manager, with the consent of a council majorty.