Mayor has 'middle ground' on Cincinnati streetcar

CINCINNATI (AP) — Cincinnati's mayor backed off his seemingly immovable stance to axe the city's $133 million streetcar, saying Thursday that he'd support finishing the project if backers find a way to pay for operating costs that could be at least $4 million annually.

Newly elected Mayor John Cranley called his offer "a real compromise," although he acknowledged that securing funding for operations before an important deadline next week is a "huge hurdle."

"It may not be possible," he said at a news conference at City Hall. "But I want people to know that I'm willing to be a good-faith partner to find a real compromise. So far, everything that's been proposed is we taxpayers have to bear all the burden."

Councilwoman and streetcar supporter Yvette Simpson said Cranley's announcement came as a surprise, and she questioned whether it was an olive branch or a ruse to appear willing to compromise.

"It's a bit of an ultimatum," she said. "It's a gun-to-your head ultimatum."

Simpson said there were many challenges to securing the funding the mayor wants, including the fact that many of the most likely private sources that could pay for operating costs already are funding other projects throughout the city.

She also surmised that potential private-sector partners would have trouble agreeing to pay for operating expenses without being in charge of operations.

Still, she said it could be doable, as long as the business sector gets some guarantees on its investment.

Streetcar supporter Ryan Messer, who is organizing an effort to put the issue before voters, called Cranley's announcement a "great step forward."

"The door has been cracked open, and I believe we're going to be there with open arms, willing to help find a solution that allows everyone to be winners," he said.

But Messer and his group of volunteers are not going to stop collecting their goal of 12,000 signatures by Saturday to trigger a special election on the matter as soon as February, an effort that would become moot if the city moves forward with the project on its own.

"We're going to deliver on these signatures, if nothing else, as a demonstration to show how wide and diverse the support is for the streetcar," he said.

With less than two weeks in office so far, Cranley has seen his time as mayor monopolized by the streetcar.

The streetcar had been under construction for months under the previous administration, with city streets torn up and the first rail laid at a cost of more than $26 million.

Last week, the new deeply divided City Council — with Cranley's support — voted 5-4 to halt spending on the project immediately in order to study whether it would cost more to finish or cancel it.

The Federal Transit Administration has given the city until Dec. 19 to make a decision, the same deadline streetcar supporters have to find private-sector funding for operations.

The costs to do away with the project have been estimated at as high as $47 million. The city also would lose out on $45 million in federal funding for the streetcar.