On November 14, Cincinnati’s Department of City Planning & Buildings held a public hearing on its upcoming land use study for the disused Wasson Road Railroad and adjacent properties.
Norfolk-Southern Railroad ended service on the line in 2009, and in 2010 the City of Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation & Engineering (DOTE) identified the right-of-way as a future off-road bicycle path in its planned 400-plus-mile network of bike lanes and trails.
Local bicycle advocates have since built public support for construction of a paved rails-to-trails bicycle path between Xavier University and Fairfax as part of a project called the Wasson Way Trail.
On Wednesday, however, city officials were quick to mention that the upcoming land use study is just that – a determination of how the Norfolk Southern property and its surroundings might be rezoned in order to protect the right-of-way up until and after the right-of-way is purchased by Cincinnati – not a determination of what should be built in its place.
Already, Norfolk Southern has leased some of its railroad property for other uses. In 2011, a shopping center at Wasson Road and Edwards Road created a gravel parking lot on the disused tracks and another business near Paxton Road is looking to do the same.
Although Federal regulations prohibit railroads from subdividing their disused properties until they complete an “abandonment” process, Wasson Way Trail advocates are concerned that revenue from additional leases might discourage Norfolk Southern from selling the right-of-way to the City of Cincinnati at a future date.
Michael Moore, Director of the City of Cincinnati’s DOTE, stated that appraisals of the Norfolk Southern property fall close to $2.5 million. He cautioned, though, that this appraisal should not be thought of as a sale price, as the terms of the City’s purchase of the property cannot be known at this time.
Multi-Modal Use of the Corridor
At the November 14 meeting, city officials also made a point of stating that the title of the upcoming land use study has not been determined but that it will make no explicit mention of bicycle paths, light rail transit, or multi-modal use of the corridor.
Members of Queen City Bike joined Cincinnati City Councilmember Laure Quinlivan (D) and former MetroMoves chairman John Schneider for a walk along the Wasson Railroad Corridor in May 2012. Photograph by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.
Construction of a double track light rail transit line in the right-of-way was first identified by the OKI Regional Council of Governments in the late 1970s. Then in 2002, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) planned to build a light rail line in place of the Wasson Road freight railroad as part of its MetroMoves plan and failed sales tax referendum. If the ballot issue had passed, construction of a light rail line would have almost certainly commenced soon after Norfolk Southern ceased freight service in 2009.
The width of the Norfolk Southern right-of-way varies wildly as it travels between Xavier University and Hyde Park. It is typically at least 30 feet wide, but in a few places widens close to 100 feet.
In May 2012 members of Queen City Bike walked the right-of-way with John Schneider, who had previously chaired the MetroMoves campaign. At that time, the groups agreed that conflicts between the proposed bike path and light rail line can be avoided if the two are planned as a unified project.
Further complicating the issue is that small sections of the Norfolk Southern property fall under the jurisdiction of the City of Norwood. These sections are all north of the line’s main tracks, for example the railroad’s former yard tracks near Montgomery Road. As Norwood is not involved in Cincinnati’s upcoming land use study, and Cincinnati of course has no influence in its affairs, whatever zoning changes Cincinnati applies will not affect bordering Norwood properties.
The Department of Planning & Buildings will complete its land use study in summer 2013, but with no immediate plans to enter into negotiations with Norfolk Southern, there is no timeline for construction of the Wasson Way Trail.