Wednesday, June 13, 2001

Feds say no on light-rail plan

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati's light-rail plans are too ambitious and the proposed system wouldn't carry enough passengers to justify spending $874.7 million, the federal government has concluded.

        Citing “poor cost effectiveness” and lack of local funding, the Federal Transit Administration issued a “not recommended” rating for the proposed 19-mile route linking Blue Ash to Covington.

        Local transit planners anticipated an unfavorable rating from the FTA's 2001 “new starts” report because they haven't figured out how to raise local matching funds to help pay for the project.

        But the federal government also says Cincinnati must shorten the route or increase ridership to have a realistic chance at federal funds next year.

        “If you don't show change, then in the eyes of the FTA there's been no progress and your ranking doesn't (improve),” said Judi Craig, light rail project manager for Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.

        Light-rail advocates are counting on the federal government to pay half the tab, with remaining costs split between Ohio and local taxpayers — possibly through a sales, property or fuel tax increase.

        OKI has promoted light rail as a way to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and sprawl, as well as spur economic development. Others have called for expanded bus service instead. An Urban Land Institute panel recommends a trolley system linking downtown Cincinnati to Over-the-Rhine and the University of Cincinnati.

        Even if OKI and the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority secure local funds, it's no guarantee that Cincinnati's bid will be competitive enough to get federal money in 2002.

        Of 42 metropolitan regions seeking federal transportation dollars, four had a worse cost effectiveness rating than Cincinnati.

        Cincinnati's per-trip cost of $15.50 exceeded the maximum cost of $12 for projects that were eligible for consideration. Other cities have improved chances by reducing project size, Ron Fisher, FTA's director of planning innovation and analysis, said Tuesday.

        “Obviously, if the project had more ridership or less costs, the rating would improve,” he said.

        Despite the low rating, Metro is considering whether to ask voters this fall to approve a tax increase to help fund the project. Tim Reynolds, Metro's director of strategic planning, expects his agency will decide by the end of August whether to appeal to taxpayers.

        Ms. Craig said Cincinnati will be in better shape next year if it comes up with local funding. The federal government will change its scorecard to emphasize reduced commute times rather than per-rider costs.


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