At City Hall, Mayor Mallory and Milton Dohoney are singing a song of sweetness and light regarding Streetcar construction. Indeed, they have promised to start construction now for more than a year. But behind the scenes, engineers and planners are fretting that the project can't happen -- at least within budget.
There are loads of problems with building the system -- something COAST and others have been saying all along. But now, the reality of budgets, law, and physics are such that the project is becoming more problematic by the day.
The biggest (but by far not only) obstacle: utility line relocation. Underneath the streets of downtown Cincinnati lie miles of sewers, electric lines, gas lines, telephone lines, cable TV and internet lines, and even chilled water lines.
It is irresponsible from an engineering perspective to build improvements on top of such utility lines, other than simple paved surfaces that can be torn up such as parking lots or streets. The City, in contrast, intends to build the continuous 18-inch concrete slab with embedded steel rail lines on top of these lines.
This will have several bad consequences:
(a) first, all of these utility lines will need to be maitained and eventually replaced. This is a question of when, not if. Further, with a 40-ton streetcar rumbling over the top of 100-year-old brick sewer lines, construction on top of the sewers may well accelerate their deterioriation.
(b) then, when they need to be repaired or replaced, repeatedly over the years, the operation of the streetcar (which cannot detour around the construction) will be disrupted.
(c) the cost of tearing up and replacing the streetcar improvements will be significant, and additional time for utility repair will be incurred. This also means a prolonged period of disruption of vehicular street traffic.
(d) the cost of the repair and replacement of the utility lines will also rise, due to the additional work and time needed for the repairs.
It will cost between $20 and $40 million to relocate these utility lines to accommodate streetcar construction. Of that, the City has budgeted only $6 million as part of the $110 million Streetcar budget.
The City's plan to pay for all of this? They intended to shift the cost to the utility ratepayers, a hidden tax increase (extending outside the City) to subsidize this ill-conceived project.
However, that plan has not been well-received. The Water works is controlled by City Council, so they will pay to relocate the water lines. But Duke Energy has steadfastly maintained that the costs associated with electric lines, natural gas lines and chilled water lines simply will not be passed on to ratepayers -- the City must pony up the money, money the City does not have. We understand that Cincinnati Bell and Time Warner have maintained the same position with respect to their utility infrastructure.
And bravely, the Hamilton County Commissioners, led by Chris Monzel, have instructed MSD not to spend a penny on sewer relocation costs.
So, Mayor Mallory and Milton Dohoney have a small hole in their budget for their beloved Streetcar.
With these realities, what will they do? Some say they will just scrap the project. Others believe they will proceed irresponsibly to build on top of these utility lines. Still others contend that they will simply start construction and announce, of course to their shock and disappointment, 80% of the way through the project, that they have run out of money, necessitating a tax increase or taking on more debt to complete it.