CINCINNATI — Cincinnati's city council halted spending on a $133 million streetcar project Wednesday, citing concerns about the price tag despite already spending millions on construction that has been underway for months.
Even as dozens of other cities across the country give their own streetcars the green light, Cincinnati's sharply divided council voted 5-4 to stop funding while an analysis is done on whether it would be more expensive to finish construction or stop the project in its tracks. The study could take as little as two weeks.
Council members who voted against stopping construction say it will effectively kill the project — and that doing so will cost millions of dollars and permanently jeopardize $44.9 million in federal funding for the project.
"I hope today isn't the final juncture of, 'Did we choose waste or did we choose opportunity?' because I don't think history will judge this council kindly," said councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.
Those who voted to stop the funding said they just want to understand what the numbers are before they come to a final decision whether to stop it.
"A pause, from my perspective, does not mean cancel, whatever you think of an individual council member's motivation," said councilman Christopher Smitherman. "This is not our money. It's taxpayer money we're talking about and in that vein, it is important that we are transparent."
The vote came after bitter back-and-forth among newly sworn-in Mayor John Cranley, who ran on a promise to stop the streetcar, and the council members who support it. Cranley had described his victory as proof that voters agree with him, although the issue survived two voter referendums and numerous financial hurdles.
"I've worked in this building for a while ... This has been the most destructive, divisive three days that I can remember," said councilman Chris Seelbach, who supports the streetcar. "Under the new leadership a lot of damage has been done, not only with the public but with the relationship of this team."
Smitherman said on the contrary, "this is the most open communication that I have had or participated in as a member of council."
Members of the public addressed council members three days in a row about how they feel about the project, the majority speaking passionately in favor of continuing it.
Cranley told them Wednesday that he understands they're upset with the result of the council's meeting.
"For those of you who love this project, just know we love this city, too," he said. "We believe in it and we'll continue to work for its progress."
The city has spent more than $23 million on the 3.6-mile line and has another $94 million obligated in contracts, although it's unclear how much of that would have to be paid if the project is axed.
John Deatrick, project executive of the streetcar for the city, has estimated that nixing the project would cost the city up to $47 million. The city also would lose out on $44.9 million in federal grants if it's stopped.
As Cincinnati weighs derailing its streetcar, cities from Dallas to Portland and Seattle are celebrating their new streetcar lines. Salt Lake City is set to open its line on Sunday, and voters in Los Angeles and Kansas City have approved new taxes for streetcar projects.
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