Tuesday, June 04, 2002

Proposed railway changes its route

Cost-cutting move eliminates tunnel

By James Pilcher, jpilcher@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Officials promoting a proposed light rail system along Interstate 71 from Blue Ash to downtown Cincinnati still haven't decided whether to seek a tax increase to pay for it, but they have made some other major changes to the plan.

[map]         Metro chief executive officer and general manager Paul Jablonski said Monday in an interview that the alignment of the proposed 19-mile, $800 million project has changed significantly, with the line now continuing along I-71 instead of cutting underneath Mount Auburn.

        “We have been doing some fairly significant value engineering, trying to get the costs down, and we think we've come up with something that is even better,” Mr. Jablonski said. The proposed line previously would have served the University of Cincinnati, as well as the Cincinnati Zoo and the city's medical community, centered on University Hospital and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

        But that would have entailed building a tunnel and a station under Mount Auburn as well as building a line through Over-the-Rhine.

        The new proposal calls for the light rail line to run either down Eggleston Avenue to Third Street, or down Central Parkway to Walnut or Main streets to connect to Third.

        A new streetcar line would then be built north along Vine Street to UC and Pill Hill, serving the zoo and connecting to the light rail line at a station proposed for Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

        The streetcar/light rail line would also connect to a proposed streetcar loop between downtown, Newport and Covington.

        Mr. Jablonski would not say how much the proposal would cut off the total budget, saying the final figures have yet to be tabulated.

        He did say that a tunnel and station under Mount Auburn would have cost $150 million alone, and that the reconfigured light rail line would be shortened.

        “Our calculations show that a mile of light rail costs $40 million, compared with $10 million a mile for streetcar,” said Mr. Jablonski, who oversees Hamilton County's public bus agency, which would operate the new light rail system.

        “And this can be used as a revitalizing tool for Vine Street.”

        All details of the plan, along with a more refined MetroMoves proposal on how to revamp Metro's bus system, are to be released by the end of the month.

        The proposed line would not change above the proposed King Drive stop, Metro officials said.

        Metro already owns 10 miles of right of way between northern Norwood and Blue Ash, and another several stretches between downtown and Norwood. The agency has spent nearly $5.8 million for the land since 1995. Several communities, especially Norwood and Deer Park, have opposed the light rail system.

        Mr. Jablonski said that he would make a final decision on a proposed tax increase by the end of July, taking a recommendation to Metro's board. If Metro wants to get a tax issue on the November ballot — most likely a sales tax increase, Mr. Jablonski said — the deadline is Aug. 22.

        A November vote might be the last chance for several years to secure federal funding for the project, which planners hope would pay for half the total outlay. In its last assessment of the project, the Federal Transit Administration declined the proposal, primarily because local funding had yet to be secured.

        A recommendation is necessary from the agency before a funding plan can be taken to Congress. Congress is set to begin debate on the next transportation funding bill early next year.

        “We need to hit Congress with this by February to make sure we're in by next fall,” Mr. Jablonski said. “We have a very short window here, and then potentially five more years before we can do this.”


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