Group trying to save Cincinnati streetcar

CINCINNATI (AP) — Supporters of Cincinnati's beleaguered streetcar on Monday began an effort to put the issue before voters in a special election as soon as February, saying that stopping the project mid-construction would be an unconscionable waste of money.

A newly formed group known as We Believe in Cincinnati held a news conference to announce the petition drive on the steps of city hall amid frigid temperatures. They said they hoped to collect 12,000 signatures by Saturday, more than double the amount needed to trigger a special election.

"Come snow, cold temperatures, rain, sleet, we are not giving up," Ryan Messer, the group's leader, said as he was cheered on by about 50 supporters.

The announcement comes less than a week after a newly elected and deeply divided city council voted 5-4 last week to halt spending on the $133 million streetcar pending an analysis of whether it would be more expensive to finish construction or stop the streetcar in its tracks.

Although the council still could move forward with the project, streetcar supporters want to be ready to put the issue on the ballot in case it's axed.

"It makes absolutely no sense to lose millions of dollars already invested in this infrastructure project that will go to waste and have nothing to show for it," said Messer, a 40-year-old Cincinnati resident who said he invested in property along the streetcar line and counted on its completion.

The streetcar has been under construction for months, with city streets torn to shreds and the first rail laid — all at a cost of well over $23 million.

The effort to halt the project is being spearheaded by new Mayor John Cranley, who ran on a promise to stop the streetcar and described his victory as proof that voters agree with him, even though they approved the streetcar in two separate referendums, in 2009 and 2011.

Cranley has said he's concerned with "the fleecing of the taxpayers" and that the streetcar is just too expensive.

John Deatrick, project executive of the streetcar for the city, has estimated that stopping the project would cost the city up to $47 million. The city also would lose out on $44.9 million in federal grants.

Although the streetcar survived two voter referendums, much of the city remains divided on its benefits. Many of its most ardent supporters live or own businesses along the planned route in downtown and the nearby Over-the-Rhine historic district, while opponents largely live in the suburbs.

Jason Alghussein, a 25-year-old Web designer living in Over-the-Rhine, stopped by city hall Monday to see if he could sign the petition to keep the streetcar moving forward.

Despite getting job offers in San Francisco and New York, Alghussein said he chose to stay in Cincinnati after college partially because of exciting redevelopment projects in the city, including the streetcar.

"I really saw Cincinnati as a place to grow as a young professional," he said, adding that scuttling the project would take the city a step backward. "At this point it does not make sense to turn back."