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Transit authority board votes to stand by its streetcar commitment

CINCINNATI -- The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority will continue to oversee streetcar operations, despite efforts by some to separate the agency from the controversial public transit system.

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SORTA Board of Trustees member Gary Greenburg put forward a resolution during Tuesday's board meeting that called for the agency to terminate its contract with the city of Cincinnati, in which it agreed to oversee streetcar operations and maintenance.

He called the streetcar a "distraction" from SORTA's efforts to boost its beleaguered Metro bus system.

"The streetcar is a luxury, and the bus system is a necessity," he said. "Every hour (our staff) spend on streetcar issues are hours not spent on the bus system."

Looking forward to the board's upcoming push to put a sales tax levy before voters in November -- as part of the agency's efforts to boost bus service -- he said, "It would send the message that SORTA is ready to devote 100 percent of its time and attention to making this the best, most effective bus system that the region could possibly hope for."

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But others on the board felt Greenburg's resolution -- and not the streetcar itself -- was the distraction.

"This has been something that the community, in my opinion, is finally coming together on," said Board member Mary Miller. "This is a bigger distraction."

Board member Brendon Cull agreed with Miller, worrying that the process of exiting the agency's contract with the city would be just as, if not more costly.

"You can think what you want about it, but we have a contractual obligation to run that streetcar," Cull said. 

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SORTA cannot exit the contract without mutual agreement from the city and without "just cause." The contract also comes with state- and federal-level stipulations, and would require approval from both the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration.

"Because of how the federal funding flows through, permission or approval from the FTA would also be required," said Dwight Ferrell, SORTA's CEO and president. "Because the state of Ohio, ODOT, has responsibility for safety oversight, that requirement is there, as well.

"Because the money flows through us, we would never be able to be completely divorced from the streetcar... even if the FTA lets us off the hook.

"It would take a minute," he said.

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Still, some board members worry public perception surrounding the streetcar could hurt their bid for a 2018 sales tax levy measure going into campaign season.

"For whatever it's worth, perception is reality," said Board member Ron Mosby. Mosby said the misconception is still pervasive that the transit agency owns the streetcar and that the streetcar siphons money from bus service. In reality, the city owns the streetcar and no funding has ever been diverted from Metro bus service to fund streetcar operations.

"We've taken great pains to make sure the funds are segregated," Mosby said, "but all of that takes work so that we can make sure that we appear this way.

"Good or bad, that's the perception."

This discussion unfolded Tuesday morning as the board prepares for the turn of another election cycle, which could mean new faces sitting at the board table come January, as some members' terms are set to expire.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) and on Facebook.

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