By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Cincinnati City Council members voted on Wednesday to suspend construction on a $133 million streetcar project aimed at connecting urban communities so it can assess the feasibility of the project.
After three days of public hearings, council members voted 5-4 to halt construction and commission an independent audit of the project, which has incurred $33 million in costs since breaking ground in February 2012.
The decision came three days after the swearing in of Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, who campaigned on stopping the project that he said the city cannot afford.
The streetcar project, a 3.6-mile (5.8-km) loop with 18 stops connecting urban communities, is estimated to cost $133 million. About $45 million of the cost was to be paid for by the Federal Transportation Administration, with the city picking up the $88 million balance.
The streetcar is expected to cost the city $3 million to $4 million a year to operate.
Proponents of streetcar project argued suspending construction will put federal funds in jeopardy and open the city up to lawsuits from contractors.
The price tag to finish the project is estimated at between $52 million to $74 million whereas halting the project will cost from $34.6 million to $51.6 million, according a report released by the city in September.
Two years ago, voters rejected a measure that would have banned the city from working on a rail project for 10 years. During the same election voters removed three anti-streetcar Republicans from the nine-seat city council.
Plans originally called to connect the Ohio River banks with a spur to the University of Cincinnati, but after Republican Governor John Kasich was elected, $55 million that was earlier allocated to the project was withdrawn.
(Editing by Brendan O'Brien, Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)