CINCINNATI -- A day after Cincinnati voters elected a mayor and a City Council majority opposed to the streetcar, more battles are brewing over the project.
Mayor-elect John Cranley spoke by telephone Wednesday afternoon with Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama. Cranley asked Jarrett about the possibility of shifting $44 million in federal grants for the streetcar to other projects.
Jarrett invited Cranley to Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue.
During the heated mayoral campaign between Cranley and Roxanne Qualls, Qualls and other streetcar supporters repeatedly said the grants would be revoked if not used for the project.
“This shows they're at least willing to consider reprogramming that money as a possibility,” said Jay Kincaid, Cranley’s campaign manager.
Cranley wants to see if the grants can be used for other transportation-related projects. They could include building an interchange at Interstate 71 and Martin Luther King Drive, or improving access from Interstate 75 to Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.
Mike Moroski, a streetcar supporter who ran unsuccessfully for City Council, pledged to mount a referendum if Cranley and the new City Council cancel the project.
On Wednesday, Moroski tweeted, “Dear Mayor: I am beginning to gather signatures TODAY for the day when you attempt to stop the streetcar. You like referendums? Me too.”
At a press conference later Wednesday, Cranley called the streetcar project “dead,” adding he welcomed any referendum attempt.
“I respect the right of petition,” Cranley said.
“I suggest if you take it back to the ballot, the result might be similar to yesterday,” he added.
Cranley referred to the election victories of candidates who oppose the project. When the new City Council takes office Dec. 1, the nine-member group will include six members who either oppose or have qualms about the project.
To place a referendum on the ballot, a group must collect the signatures of registered Cincinnati voters in a number equal to 10 percent of city voters in the last gubernatorial election.
That number is 8,522 signatures, and they would need to be collected within 30 days of City Council cancelling the streetcar project.
Last spring Cranley and others opposed to a lease of Cincinnati’s parking meters and garages collected more than 19,000 signatures to mount a referendum.
More than 10,000 were deemed valid, but a court later blocked the referendum attempt because the lease was approved by City Council as an emergency ordinance.
Cranley was skeptical streetcar supporters would gather enough signatures by the deadline. “It’s a hard thing to do,” he said.
First discussed by City Council in 2007, Cincinnati’s streetcar project already has survived two previous attempts to block it.
In November 2009, voters rejected a charter amendment that would’ve required a public vote before taxpayer money was used for any rail-related project within Cincinnati. It was rejected 56-44 percent.
In November 2011, voters rejected a charter amendment that would’ve prohibited city officials from spending money on anything related to preparing any type of passenger rail transit through Dec. 31, 2020. It was rejected 52-48 percent.
Since that time, however, costs for the project have increased.
In June, City Council voted 5-4 to approve an extra $17.4 million for the project after construction bids came in higher than estimated. The action pushed the project’s total cost to $133 million.
Of the amount, $44.9 million comes from federal grants, while $87.9 million is derived from local funding.
Construction of the project began in August. An estimated $25 million has been spent so far.
The project’s first phase involves a 3.6-mile looped route through downtown and Over-the-Rhine. Five streetcars will operate up to 18 hours a day, 365 days a year, if completed.