Monday, February 4, 2013

City and Duke agree to court; Utility relocation to begin soon

Relocation of Duke Energy's underground electrical and gas lines to accommodate construction of the $110 million, 3.6-mile Cincinnati streetcar loop will begin within the next two weeks, thanks to signed agreements between the City and Duke Energy announced on Friday.

The two parties have agreed to go before the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court within the next two weeks to seek a declaratory judgment on who should pay to relocate any utility lines located under and within three feet of the track slab. A second agreement outlines how the City and Duke will work in partnership to ensure worker safety during maintenance of the lines once the streetcar is operational.

"This is an absolute agreement," said Mayor Mark Mallory. "Duke is going to start moving utilities. Previously, they weren't going to do anything until it was determined who had to pay for it."

Negotiations between the City and Duke over who should pay have proved unsuccessful. Duke argues that it would not have to move the lines if not for the project; the City argues that Duke uses City-owned rights-of-way by City permission and, by state law, is required to move its utilities as part of a public improvement project.

"We're not the only city in America that has had issues with utility companies on moving," said City Manager Milton Dohoney. "It is a practice that other cities have also done. We can't really resolve it unless both [parties] go into court and see what the court rules based on the law of the state that you're talking about."

Mallory stressed that the two parties have a great working relationship and that the court case should not be seen as adversarial. Duke signed the agreement, he said, because it didn't want to be responsible for holding up the project.

"From the beginning, when there was the first inkling of conflict about the movement of the utilities, I said that Duke Energy and the City of Cincinnati would come to some agreement on getting the utilities moved," Mallory said. "Duke Energy, for those of you who don't know, is one of the strongest corporate partnerships that the City of Cincinnati has."

The City has placed $15 million, approved by City Council in September, into an escrow account to cover the costs if the judge does not rule in its favor. If the judge finds in the City's favor, it's unclear how Duke would finance the costs – although it's believed that the costs would be passed on to City ratepayers.

'It will get done', maybe not before All-Star Game

The agreements will not significantly change the project's timeline, due to begin construction in early April and to be completed in April 2016.

Last Thursday, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls urged Dohoney to develop a plan to have the streetcar ready in time for the 2015 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, to be held in July 2015 at Great American Ball Park.

"It's important to understand that there are five major components to this project, and all have to move forward simultaneously," Dohoney said, noting that, in addition to the utility work, track needs to be laid, electricity supplied, cars acquired, and a maintenance facility built.

Contractor bids for construction are due by Feb. 8, the same day that CAF USA Inc. begins assembling the City's order of five streetcar vehicles.

"Priority number one is to make sure that we have a safe, functional, fully-operational streetcar that is reliable in operation," Mallory said.

"For those people who have supported this project from the beginning, I think it's appropriate for me to say 'thank you' for your patience," Dohoney said. "But it will get done."

Previous reading on BC:
Committee approvals keep streetcar on track (9/24/12)
Consultant sought to work with streetcar manufacturer (9/10/12)
Blue Ash considering restructuring of airport deal (8/6/12)
City declares intent to acquire properties for streetcar facility (5/7/12)
UC lecture to examine broader effects of streetcar project (5/1/12)