Cincinnati council committee approves streetcar

CINCINNATI (AP) — A City Council committee recommended Thursday that Cincinnati restart and finish its streetcar project following more than two weeks of tense debate and plenty of drama over whether to axe it for good.

Five of the eight council members on the committee voted in favor of continuing with the $133 million streetcar. The other three abstained. The project now hinges on a full City Council vote later Thursday.

The committee's vote came after council members heard an analysis of the costs of continuing versus stopping the project.

So far, $34 million has been spent on the streetcar, with downtown streets torn to shreds and the first rail already laid, according to Netherlands-based KPMG, which conducted an analysis of the project after the newly elected City Council voted to halt spending immediately so it could fully understand the costs.

The accounting firm estimated that stopping construction and scrapping the project altogether would cost between $50 million and $80 million, which does not include the $45 million the city would lose in federal dollars that had been allocated for the streetcar.

The firm estimated that finishing the streetcar would cost the city $70 million and that operating costs once the project is finished in 2016 would run between $56 million and $73 million over a 30-year period.

Some council members who support continuing with the streetcar criticized the company's analysis for excluding a breakdown of the possible economic benefits to the project and the inevitable costs of future litigation from citizens groups and contracted companies should the city stop the project.

"It just needs to be made clear how staggeringly incomplete this is," councilman P.G. Sittenfeld said of not having an analysis of the economic benefits.

Councilwoman Amy Murray praised the company's analysis, calling it an important second opinion, "and I think that's what you need when you're spending taxpayer dollars."

The streetcar project had survived two voter referendums and numerous funding hurdles and had been under construction for months under the city's previous mayor.

The new mayor, John Cranley, ran on a promise to stop the streetcar because of its price tag and began efforts to halt it just one day after being sworn in on Dec. 1.

Since then, the project has been on a virtual roller coaster ride, which has included a deeply divided City Council voting 5-4 to stop the project pending the financial analysis, a citizens' effort to collect 12,000 signatures to put the issue before voters again in a special election as soon as February, and Cranley's announcement that he would support finishing the project if streetcar backers could find private funding for the operating costs.

Critics of the streetcar say it's just too expensive given the city's budget woes and the current economic climate.

Supporters say stopping the project now would be an inexcusable waste of money and the city could become a national embarrassment. They say if the streetcar is finished, it will become an economic boon.