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Former Mayor Raps Cincinnati Project

Wed July 22, 2009 - Midwest Edition
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CINCINNATI (AP) Planners envisioned trains, hundreds of buses and thousands of passengers when construction began on a $23 million downtown transit center.

Instead, there are no train tracks, no buses and no people. Locked chain link doors block entrances at both ends most days.

A former mayor, who also represented part of Cincinnati in the U.S. House, calls it one of the biggest boondoggles he’s ever seen, and wants the Ohio inspector general to look into possible fraud and waste in the facility.

“The taxpayers and the government officials who funded this project were promised a fantasy,” former Rep. Tom Luken wrote in a three-page letter to Inspector General Thomas Charles. “When tax dollars are involved, I think that’s fraud.”

The inspector general’s office investigates allegations of wrongdoing or waste by state agencies and officials. It reports findings to the governor’s office and the state agency involved, and may forward its reports to prosecutors.

A decision whether to investigate Luken’s complaint likely will be made later this month, Charles said.

“This is one of the worst government boondoggles I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen plenty,” Luken said. “For all practical purposes, this thing shut down the day it opened.”

The transit center was finished in 2003 as part of a $330 million reconstruction of the downtown portion of Interstate 71. It is between Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park, beneath a city street.

Officials predicted that its 20 bus bays soon would handle up to 500 buses and 20,000 people per hour during sporting events or other riverfront festivities, with passenger train service on the horizon.

Those were projections “bordering on the fictitious,” Luken said.

The center has had limited usage during Reds and Bengals games, and during special events such as Riverfest and Tall Stacks.

Among his numerous public jobs, Luken served from 2003-2007 on the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which oversees the Metro bus system.

It irks him that one argument for the transit center was that up to 60,000 students annually would use it when they visited the nearby National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

“It’s one more bit of phoniness about a project that has plenty of it,” Luken said.

Sallie Hilvers, Metro’s chief administrative officer, said officials anticipated that the Freedom Center and other riverfront attractions would use the center as an alternative to Second Street, which was expected to be clogged with traffic from another riverfront project.

That still may happen as the long-delayed, nearly $1 billion multi-use Banks development opens in phases over the next decade, she said.

“We’ve got a transit center already in place well ahead of the need,” Hilvers said. “That wasn’t the original plan, but we can’t control when other developments happen. The good thing is the center’s ready for when it can be put to optimum use.”

For now, the center is locked most days to prevent vandalism.

“I’m tired of this line of reasoning that this isn’t wasteful because it was federal money or that we had to spend it fast to avoid losing it,” said Chris Finney, a Cincinnati lawyer and co-founder of Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending & Taxes. “It’s a classic case of obscenely wasteful spending of government money.”

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