EDITORIAL: Cincinnati Leaders Should Rethink Planned Rail, Trail Systems

Ten days ago UrbanCincy sounded the alarm on the proposed Wasson Way Trail, and we feel that due to the large amount of feedback that further explanation is needed.

Tomorrow at 12pm, City Council’s Strategic Growth Committee will discuss the proposal that would turn the Wasson Corridor from a railroad right-of-way into a recreational trail. What UrbanCincy is urging City Council to require is a minimum of 28 feet worth of right-of-way preserved for future light rail use.

Standard designs for bi-directional light rail traffic require a minimum of 28 feet of right-of-way. Along some portions of the Wasson Corridor it may very well be possible to accommodate 28 feet for light rail, plus additional right-of-way for the proposed recreational trail, and in those segments it may make sense to get started.

Looking east as the Wasson Line crosses over Interstate 71. Photograph by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

While there is no funding currently in place to build light rail along the Wasson Corridor, it would be short-sighted to remove one of the best rail transit corridors in the city. This was previously done on Cincinnati’s west side when an abandoned railway used by freight and passenger rail traffic was abandoned and then allowed to be built over and occupied by the Glenway Crossings retail center.

Allowing this to take place offered city and county leaders to reap the rewards of a short-term boost, but it has also created a situation that makes building light rail to Cincinnati’s western suburbs almost impossible. This same thing could happen to Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs should the Wasson Corridor be used by a recreational trail.

Proponents of the Wasson Way Trail project made it clear that many of the supporters also want to see light rail eventually happen, but that we should not wait until that day comes to improve the visual appearance of the corridor. Case studies from all over the United States show, however, that once a former rail line is converted into another use, it is almost always an impossible political task to take that land back for rail purposes.

2002 regional light rail plan for Cincinnati.

In the larger scheme of things, UrbanCincy believes that regional leaders need to take a step back and ask themselves why we are still discussing commuter rail along the Ohio River, and a recreational trail through densely populated city neighborhoods. The priorities should be reversed, and the Oasis Line along the Ohio River should be converted into a recreational trail while the Wasson Line is preserved for future light rail use.

It is estimated that the Wasson Light Rail Line would attract three times the number of riders than the Oasis Commuter Rail Line, while also being significantly less expensive to build and operate. Futhermore, when discussions were held about the Oasis Line, residents and property owners along the line voiced their opposition to such activity and have conversely expressed interest in seeing the railway converted into a recreational trail.

City and regional leaders should maintain the natural beauty of the Ohio River and turn the Oasis Line into an attractive recreational trail that can connect into existing trail networks to the east, and the Wasson Line should be preserved for light rail use in the future. It may seem frustrating to leave the Wasson Line in its current state of appearance, but it will be much more frustrating to jeopardize one of the best potential light rail corridors envisioned for the region.

  • Still think your opposition to the Oasis Line is really asinine.  The benefits of the railway far outweigh the costs, and the development potential is much stronger with light rail than a bike trail.  But, I mean the Wasson Line will benefit the richer communities of the city, rather than providing better affordable mass transit options for lower-income areas.

    • Both the Wasson and Oasis lines start and terminate at the same places, but the Oasis line travels through less-populated areas that will have lower ridership and fewer opportunities for new development.

    • Jacob Mecklenborg

      The cost per rider on the Oasis line is insane, and there is little opportunity for transit oriented development.  Scarce public dollars can be spent much more wisely on the Wasson line, unless odious interests masquerading as inoffensive bicyclists succeed in blocking the line with their bike trail and whatever legal protection they plan to sneak in its permit.  

    • Zachary Schunn

      Low-income areas?  This line doesn’t go through any actual neighborhoods until it reaches Mt. Lookout.  Depending upon the chosen route, the Wasson line would have to extend downtown through Evanston, Norwood, Walnut Hills, Clifton/Corryville, and/or OTR.

      As many have pointed out, development potential along the hills surrounding the river is minimal.  We’re talking about the stretch along Columbia Parkway.

      I’m a huge rail supporter, and would rather see the Oasis line considered in the future as a sort of “express” option to the Wasson line.  But we have much, much higher priorities (like I-75/71 rail corridors and an airport LRT line) to consider before building stretches that only serve a couple thousand residents.

    • The only neighborhoods that the Oasis line goes through is around Eastern Avenue, mostly new development and all expensive until you get to Columbia Tusculum, which is also expensive, followed by Fairfax which IMO is the only working class area along the line.  Not only that but the population density doesn’t really justify that line, its much stronger along the wasson line.

  • I think Randy’s intention was, comparing the two trails, converting the Oasis line makes more sense than the Wasson line. Oasis line will serve far less people.

  • Anonymous

    Randy, I’m not part of the Wasson bike trail movement, so I don’t know
    how much space the trail would have or need, but I support both LRT
    systems and bike trails so let me ask you this: why would the
    Wasson LRT (assuming that it ever comes into fruition and space is an
    issue, of course) need two tracks running the whole length of the route?
    Sure, that would be preferable, but isn’t it a reasonable option to
    merge the two tracks into a single track at various space-challenged
    sections and the trains could alternate travel on a single track at
    those locations (hopefully at minimum, I would agree)? In this way, the
    bike trail and the LRT could coexist along the route and I think that
    should be a top goal for the city.

    • Anonymous

      Single tracking is one of the most frustrating things while riding rail. I currently live in DC, and there is frequently work being done on the line I live off of during off-hours (weekends and weeknights). The train just sits in the tunnel for 5 minutes or so and you feel helpless. When Cincinnati finally gets light rail, it would be foolish to think that people would give up their cars for a rail system that sits idle for 5+ minutes waiting for another train to go by unless traffic gets truly unreasonable (which in my opinion, we are far from this). 

      When Cincinnati builds light rail, I think we need to do it right the first time. Also, if you single track at one location and need to do repairs on the line, you can’t get any trains by. You have to get people to transfer to buses between stations when that happens, and that adds a LOT of time to your trip.

      I would support a deal where the entire line can be utilized for a trail (while keeping the line is condition ripe for reuse as a rail line), but if the Wasson line ever comes to fruition, it is automatically handed over to SORTA (or the operator of the regional light rail system). Of course, there will still be people upset about the trail and they will inevitably try to stop the project to save the trail regardless of any deal made in the past. Though I imagine the same opposition would exist if the trail was never even thought of. 

      Very difficult scenario. You don’t want to stop something that’s good if something great will never happen. But you don’t want to do something good if it will jeopardize something great. 

    • Single tracking is very much frowned upon due to the safety issues it presents. Single tracking would also create idling situations, as mentioned, or restrict the frequencies of trains.

      Let me put it like this, the FAA mandates that airport assets, when sold or transferred, must stay within the airport system. Likewise, we offer up hundreds of feet of ROW to roads all over our cities. Why is rail treated so differently?

    • Single tracking is not a good idea.  In Baltimore they did it with part of their light rail, and only a few years later due to lack of frequencies and to meet demand they double tracked it anyways.  Not a good idea.

  • Zachary Schunn

    Any word on the City Council meeting?  I couldn’t make it unfortunately…

  • You should look at the Monon Trail in Indianapolis and Carmel given the area’s similar demographics. I don’t think light rail makes sense for the Wasson Line unless there is a complete connection to downtown.

  • TimSchirmang

    If light rail requires double tracking along the entire route, the Wasson light rail line would be a very expensive project.  It’s one thing to say, ‘well the road is already there, we shouldn’t waste it on a trail project or other use’, but the reality is that from a cost standpoint, creating the Wasson light rail line essentially requires building an additional road along the entire length. The CL&N route to downtown, (two bridges over I-71) are single track, the Wasson bridge over I-71 at Dana is single track, the tunnel under Marburg is single track, the tunnel under Erie is single track, the bridge in Ault Park is single track, the lengthy, elevated bridge over Red Bank is single track, etc. Those are all major engineering projects required to add an additional line. Proponents of the Wasson light rail conveniently gloss over this reality and make it sound like light rail installation only requires buffing tracks and spraying weed killer. 

    If the right of way was converted to a bike path under condition that light rail usage would take priority in the future, if and when feasible, the conversion back to rail would be a relatively nominal task compared to designing and constructing the necessary additions to make light rail happen.  In the meantime, using the line as a trail would preserve the strip for future light rail use, as opposed to letting private developers carve it up into many, many pieces.

    It’s almost laughable how complicated and ineffectual the debate has become. In terms of cost, risk, and development, the best solution for the City is to develop the right of way as a bike/hike trail until such time as light rail becomes a cost-effective development. 

    The argument that ‘once rail is turned into something else it never goes back to rail’ is silly.  First, how many times has is ever been seriously attempted?  Second, converting rail into a strip mall and back to rail is very different that rail to bike trail to rail, where the essential characteristic of a ‘right of way’ is preserved. Third, if the first conversion away from rail expressly reserves a right to change it back to rail, there’s no real obstacle to doing so.

    • I agree 100%. The Oasis line would be a much simpler, less expensive light rail corridor to develop, and the City can’t even agree on raising the funds to make that project happen. Asking the city to preserve the Wasson corridor for light rail in the future is a little like asking us to preserve Union Terminal for use as a future spaceport.

  • You state that the minimum width required for a dual-track light rail ROW is 28′. Unfortunately, the current Wasson rail corridor only measures 24′-6″ (as I have verified myself recently using a tape measure, at 5 different points along the corridor). Therefore, there is not enough space for light rail as the corridor now stands. Those involved with planning the Wasson Way trail have been asked to preserve sufficient space with their trail design for a light rail line in the future, but how is this possible if there isn’t enough space for it now?

    • The Wasson Corridor actually varies in width from end-to-end. In fact, the UrbanCincy team has walked the corridor, taken aerial photographs of it, and sat down with the Wasson Way team to discuss the possibilities. There is really one choke point to be concerned. About outside the bridge crossings, and that is the area runnin parallel with Wasson Road just west of Rookwood.

      The Wasson Corridor has been in regional transit plans for decades. Look to Salt Lake City’s Sugarhouse Streetcar/Trail corridor as an example of what could be done. And yes, we’ve even visited that in person.