East Side Commuter Rail Project in Doubt Following Vote to Develop Oasis Line as Trail

The fate of a long-planned commuter rail line along the eastern riverfront took an abrupt turn over the past month. With the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) Board voting 12-1 in favor of a plan to use it for the Ohio River Trail, it puts a severe damper on one day using it as commuter rail to the city’s eastern suburbs.

The commuter rail, commonly referred to as the Oasis Line, had been pursued by Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune (D) for many years. Over time the Oasis Line had become a component of the much larger Eastern Corridor project, which is also now facing a very unclear future of its own.

SORTA purchased the right-of-way in 1994 for $4 million, after which it sold the more southern of the parallel-running tracks and easement to Genesee & Wyoming – the parent company of the Indiana & Ohio Railway Company – which also has the rights to utilize the northern tracks that would be paved over as part of this plan.

As a result, SORTA officials still need to work out details with G&W in order to allow the bike trail to move forward.

“After a comprehensive three-month review of all aspects of the issue, the SORTA Board has overwhelmingly endorsed the concept of a temporary bike trail on the Oasis Line,” said Jason Dunn, Chair of the SORTA Board. “We will do all in our power to work collaboratively with our partners to support the development of the trail.”

The 4.75-mile section of trail will complete the Ohio River Trail on the city’s east side. This segment is estimated to cost $4 million, of which $1 million has already been raised by Ohio River Way. Other portions of the Ohio River Trail, which connects to the Little Miami Scenic Trail, have been completed in a piecemeal fashion over the years.

Project supporters say that if everything goes smoothly, the multipurpose trail could open as early as 2017.

“The trail is an asset that the community clearly wants and it will be an enhancement to multimodal transportation in the region,” Dunn stated in a prepared media release.

SORTA officials say the next steps call for working out regulatory issues with federal agencies, and coming up with a design for the trail that is both safe and amenable to G&W.

While this move may hamper future efforts of developing commuter rail along this corridor, SORTA officials structured the agreement to allow for future flexibility. This includes the design of what the transit agency is calling a “temporary trail” that does not preclude from future passenger rail service along the Oasis Line.

To some passenger rail advocates, however, the prospect of the Oasis Line going away is a good one.

“The riverfront is a perfect place for a recreational trail, while light rail transit would be better-suited serving our neighborhoods,” Derek Bauman, Chair of Cincinnatians for Progress and SW Ohio Director for All Aboard Ohio, told UrbanCincy. “We should move forward with this plan to complete the Ohio River Trail, and then shift our attention to developing a recreational trail and light rail line along the Wasson Corridor.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: In August 2010, UrbanCincy provided an in-depth look at the plans for the Oasis Line. Then in February 2012, UrbanCincy published a controversial editorial that called for a new vision with the Oasis Line being utilized as a trail, and the Wasson Line as a combined trail and light rail corridor.

  • EDG

    Streetcar supporters, me included, lobbied tirelessly for a project with implementation and design flaws but are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good in the Oasis Line’s case. That’s not even getting into the complete lack of momentum for the conceptual rail projects they do want.

    • The Oasis Line will cost $600 million to build, is estimated to get about 4000 riders/day, and will create very little economic development around its stations. My comparison, the streetcar is also expected to get the same number of daily riders, yet costs less than 1/3 of that amount to build, and is expected to generate a huge amount of economic development with a 2.7-to-1 ROI.

      There may not be a plan to build rail along the Wasson Way corridor yet, but that doesn’t mean we should settle for the mediocre Oasis Line rail plan.

    • EDG

      The economic development potential of the Oasis has been glossed over by opponents, and what the sustained streetcar ridership number will actually be is probably being overprojected given the still very low population level of OTR.

      America is the only country that still builds mixed-traffic streetcars and that choice does not bode well for connecting to an efficient regional light rail system eventually. Also, the connection at Findlay Market into phase 2 is a mess as well as the utility issue up Vine. I’m not saying the oasis line is great, but it’s still a more regional project than the streetcar ever may be with these two critical design mistakes that were made. Glass houses.

    • I guess it depends on how you measure the success of a transportation project. I would say that we have to look at getting the highest ridership for our money. If we can spend $145M and get 4,000 additional transit riders daily, that’s a better investment than spending $600M to get 4,000 additional transit riders daily. Some streetcar opponents will continue to say that “it doesn’t go anywhere” or that it’s too slow (even after it exceeds ridership expectations), but the proof will be in the ridership numbers.

      As we have discussed many times on the podcast, America places way too much important on the daily commute to and from work, and largely ignores the other trips that people make. The Oasis Line makes sense if you are thinking about transportation purely from a getting people to and from work as quickly as possible. The reason that Red Bike is doing well is that it’s great for those 80% of trips that don’t involve the daily commute. The streetcar will serve those same trips as well.

      I’m curious what economic development potential you see along the Oasis Line that has been overlooked.

    • EDG

      4000 daily rides means a good majority of the current OTR population has to ride it at least once a day- not going to happen. We all know the main reason for building the stcar was not transportation. Also, will the bulk OTR population south of Liberty wait 10-15 minutes, assuming they’re only 2 blocks off the route, to ride mixed-traffic transit for what’s a reasonable walking distance? Two recent articles from national pro-transit sources I’ve read are comparing our route to DC and Atlanta, which isn’t good. I absolutely think it’s a good project but I don’t think it will be a significant ridership success until population significantly increases in northern otr considering the geography of otr and that the route really won’t serve the population east of walnut. And minus the rails (the economic dev case) the station and signal improvements finishing up are just what you’d get with BRT. There’s no need to gloss over the flaws of a project that was designed in secret and is now supposed to be the catalyst for future rail transit here.

      As far as Oasis development, there are 200 acres of land “susceptible to change” around just the eastern most two stops. That is a broad analysis not even including the degree of density or redevelopment in each area. Most of the backlash is rightfully about stopping sprawl, but to totally discount the Oasis is to throw away a significant chance of ever having TOD or new urbanism development here.

    • BillCollins45227

      Think about it. Where in the USA has a commuter-rail line been built along a major riverfront and successful driven development? Maybe there is a positive answer here, but I am not aware of it.

      Look at Boston, NYC, DC and other cities that have major riverfronts, bayfront and oceanfronts, and please tell me where there is a commuter-rail line along them that has really driven development. Having lived in Boston, and spent a lot of time in DC and NYC, I cannot think of such a location.

      As I see it, it’s simple geography: if a commuter-rail line runs alongside a large body of water, that means half of the potential development (the development that could happen on the opposite site of the body of water) is cut off until humans develop the ability to walk on water. Here in Cincinnati the problem is compounded along the Oasis line because the Ohio River and the Little Miami River — unlike, for example, the Potomac and Anacostia rivers in DC. the East and Hudson rivers in NYC and the Charles and Mystic rivers in Boston — both flood regularly. And, the Ohio River sits in a deep valley with high hills surrounding the valley — something that one does not see on the Potomac and Anacostia in DC, the East and Hudson in NYC and the Mystic and Charles rivers in Boston.

      In Philly, the Schuylkill River sits in a deep valley like the Ohio River, Unless I’m missing something, the commuter rail line that follows the Schuylkill in the suburbs (within the City of Philly, this transit line does not follow the river) is essentially a park-and-ride proposition with no significant development stimulated by it.

      As for the Ankor site — a site near the Little Miami River that currently has no water/sewer/electrical infrastructure and is essentially an area of abandoned open-pit mining — what is its development potential? Yes, I suppose that more big-box retail could be built there. But after the growth of such development at Eastgate and in Milford along the East Fork of the Little Miami River where the Walmart and Target stores are located, how much more need is there for more big-box stores in that area?

      As for Ankor attracted “real” jobs that actually pay decent money — you know, factories or large-scale corporate campuses — I just don’t see the potential. The fact is that Clermont County and far eastern Hamilton County have lost many such jobs in recent years. Look here at the shutdown of the old Ford plant in Batavia and the shutdown of 3M Precision Optics in Amelia about 8-10 years ago, and before that the shutdown of SDRC in Miami Township and the shutdown of International Paper’s R&D center in Miami Township.

      As much as we might want to pretend otherwise, the workforce in Clermont County is just not attractive any more to either industrial employers or to tech/R&D employers. The capital flows show that. I’m not saying that employment growth is dead in the suburbs. Not at all. But, the places where we are seing employment growth in the suburbs are to the northeast (Blue Ash, Mason, etc.), the north (within 4-5 miles of the I-275/I-75 interchange) and southwest (in and near CVG, Erlanger, Florence, etc.

      To try to pretend that Clermont County and far eastern Hamilton County can be propped up as an employment center by a $600M spend on the Oasis Line and/or the $250M relocation of SR 32 through the Little Miami Valley is an oasis, an illusion. The markets are speaking. They don’t want to invest in this area, except for the usual garden-variety big-box chain retail. So, why spend $1 billion to subsidize this kind of “growth.” It’s a waste.

    • Kevin Vernia

      The Manayunk Line in Philly you described does run along the river in the city and gets very good ridership. There are some pretty big parking lots for the suburban stops, but the surrounding areas are still very walkable. The hills aren’t nearly as imposing as the ones in Cincinnati.
      The number of houses along the ROW for the Oasis Line are merely a fraction of those along the Manayunk Line.

    • BillCollins45227

      Hi Kevin: That’s right. My point is that the transit stops along the Manayunk Line are not driving a lot of new development, as some claim would happen here with Oasis. Ridership there is good because of the existing density in Philly, but thats not the case here with the neighborhoods that lie near the proposed Oasis rail

      The Schuylkill River does not flood like the Little Miami and Ohio rivers do, so again locally I see no logic in this idea that Oasis Line here would drive new development. Even ODOT documents don’t claim much development potential for those proposed Oasis station locations.

    • ahblid

      And yet SEPTA just got a grant to study how to better protect the Manayunk Line against flooding.

      http://www.progressiverailroading.com/passenger_rail/news/Study-addresses-climaterelated-risks-for-SEPTAs-commuter-line–43830

    • BillCollins45227

      Ahblid: Thanks for pointing this out.

    • Neil Clingerman

      I’ve been along that area and there is more developable/developed land along the Manayunk line than there is along Cincy’s Ohio river area.

      Really picturesque area too lots of old rowhouses / churches / rail viaducts all in a river valley – I wish I had time to explore but only passed through on a work trip to an office out in the suburbs.

    • EDG

      All those cities you mention have heavy rail, you’re neglecting that much of the oasis line doesn’t run along the riverfront, and you’re also neglecting historic development patterns that resulted from, yes, infrequent commuter rail transit, places such as Hyde Park and Mt. Lookout. The EC is going to die on it’s own, I just don’t like the hypocrisy coming from streetcar supporters coming in at the last second from 1000 feet up.

    • BillCollins45227

      I’m not sure how you get the idea that Oasis does not follow near the rivers. Look at the map. From Downtown to Columbia-Tusculum, it lies in the trench of the Ohio River valley.

      Then, after it makes it turn northward, it parallels the Little Miami River and Duck Creek, so that it has steep un-developable (is that a word- ha!) land on its left side outbound and waste areas of flood plain to its right outbound.

      Then, after it makes it turn eastward again (near Ault Park where Columbia Parkway passes over Duck Creek), the proposed rail line goes down into the Little Miami River flood plain until it reaches Newtown Road.

      Again, ODOT’s own documents show that it has almost zero potential to stimulate development. Yes, I am a streetcar supporter, one who lives in a neighborhood that’s located miles away from the streetcar line. I oppose Oasis rail for a couple of reasons that have NOTHING to do with the streetcar, and DO have to do with what happens here on the East Side where I live:
      1) The Eastern Corridor idea of ruining the Little Miami Valley for a roadway and a “green cover-up” commuter line would be a huge setback fo the quality of life in this part of town where I live.

      2) Oasis Line, if built, would not be an economic/ridership success, as ODOT’s own documents show. The last thing we need here is for the 1st commuter-rail line to be built in modern times to be a failure. If that happened, it would set back the prospects for successful commuter rail for a generation.

    • EDG

      If ODOT had there way, transit wouldn’t be included in the project. I wish transit supporters here were as critical of the streetcar as they are the oasis line, maybe they wouldn’t have let HDR just plop down a route that can’t seamlessly go any further north, and let city hall copy other “modern” mixed traffic streetcars because that’s what Portland did. As far as transit precedent/failure, the streetcar is surely not the hub of some eventual regional transit system despite another glossed over selling point.

    • Kevin Vernia

      I agree with your statment that the streetcar should not necessarily be seen as the hub of a larger transportation system. But what is the major hurdle for going further North? I had thought that was planned out and the cost was going to be far less than Ph1 due to tram purchasing, tram shed construction, and electric supply not being needed to expand the system.
      I’ve often wondered how tough it would really be to give the streetcar priority. Could some type of curb be installed so that cars would be unable to drive in it’s ROW (except at intersections of course) in the future?
      Looking at it from an existing population density, geography, and existing ROW standpoint, the only lines that make sense to me long term are the Wasson (connecting to Clifton), and regional rails from Xavier to Blue Ash and Sharonville. An airport line could work well as part of a larger system but not sure if Covington and the area around 275 would provide enough of ridership for the line.

    • EDG

      It is highly unlikely that it will ever be in a dedicated lane since the rail wasn’t put in against the curb for the majority of the route other than Central. You would be curbing off metered spaces then.

      I don’t see how regional rail should even connect to the stcar, if you’re coming from Sharonville or blue ash, do you really need to weave through otr at a slower pace for the last two miles of what should otherwise be a speedy trip.

    • John Schneider

      If streetcar ridership is good and growing, it will get signal priority.

    • Neil Clingerman

      I’m reminded of Baltimore’s light rail which had single tracked segments when it first opened.

    • BillCollins45227

      I disagree with your assessment of the streetcar.

      If you want to see how a streetcar line is becoming the hub of a regional light-rail/streetcar configuration, please go to Minneapolis. There the light-rail line comes in from the south (from the far southern suburbs, the Mall of America and MSP airport as a grade-separated light-rail line. As it approaches the Central Business District of Minneapolis, it drops down to level-grade as a streetcar as it moves through Downtown Minneapolis.

      Here the streetcar technology — including the power systems/drive trains, the tracks and the vehicles — are being built to light-rail specs just as this all is in Minneapolis. The alternative — building tunnels for the rail through the Central Business District — is outrageously expensive and not in the cards now because of the right-wing control of Congress that is locked in now until 2022 when the next re-gerrymander is done.

      In St. Louis the light rail does go underground, which is excellent. Fortunately, it was possible to do this underground work cheaply in St. Louis — which is not possible here in Cincinnati — because the light rail was able to use existing tunnels that were sitting there unused. Again, in Cincinnati we don’t have that luxury Downtown because when the Cincinnati subway project was half-built, the underground work was scheduled to be the LAST piece of that project, and the project was abandoned before this planned underground/tunnel work was done in Cincinnati’s central business district.

    • Ian Mitchell

      There is the area under the Central parkway, which is the former canal, and where the cincinnati subway was going to go.

      CBDs do move- Midtown was still farmland when lower manhattan was nearing a million people.

    • John Schneider

      Bill is right.

    • Ian Mitchell

      The best I can think of is Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, which isn’t commuter rail.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Its not just OTR folks who will ride it, its tourists/visitors too. OTR is ripe for tourism. I’m not 100% on board with the design philosophy of the streetcar either, but I do feel its a great catalyst for tourism.

      Plus it makes getting from downtown to OTR easier for lunch trips if you are a downtown worker.

    • If that is true, then it would make sense for Clermont County and the eastern communities along the Oasis Line to pay for it. I’ll wait, but I won’t hold my breath.

    • Kevin LeMaster

      EDG, you are aware that the streetcar goes through OTR AND Downtown, right? And that the number of people Downtown swells during the day, as it’s the region’s largest employment center by far. In other words, you might need to rework your numbers.

    • Kevin Vernia

      I agree with this. One can conceive people using the streetcar line (for it’s many design inefficiencies) could tie into a larger system and have increasing rides as the system serves more areas. It’s unclear how the Oasis Line would be anything more than Regional Rail into the city for a very small amount of riders. If it wasn’t at the bottom of the hill it’d have a chance to be a great line. I’m not sure many people are going to walk down Delta Ave to catch this thing.

    • EDG

      The selling point that the streetcar will tie into a larger system is a fallacy. People aren’t going to ride light rail into OTR only to go at a snails pace into downtown once they hit Findlay market.

    • Kevin Vernia

      Google lists a difference of 6 min between driving and taking transit from Finley to the Banks, and that is not even considering time spent looking for parking. Probably a 2 to 3 min difference when you include parking.
      I too think the streetcar is a design disaster considering it’s in mixed use traffic, but I think the lack of speed is overblown.

    • If the speed of the streetcar turns out to be an issue (which I predict it won’t), we can speed it up by adding signal prioritization. There is no technical limitation preventing us from doing so, it’s all about the political willingness to prioritize transit over cars. We could also make some portions of the streetcar route into transit-only lanes. (I would prefer a transit-only lane rather than a streetcar-only lane. There’s no reason buses can’t take advantage of that ROW as well.) Again, there is nothing technical preventing us from doing this; it’s all about the politics.

    • EDG

      I’m not talking about speed, I’m talking about people coming in from beyond OTR on light rail and then having to switch to the stcar to make it all the way downtown. Doesn’t make sense from a rider’s perspective.

    • You wouldn’t need to do that. You would simply ride the same light rail train you’re on, but use the existing streetcar tracks. Those tracks were designed so that they can be shared.

    • Ian Mitchell

      Agreed- but frequency also matters.

    • Ian Mitchell

      Making the bus system suck less (to be informal) would do a lot for the city as well. The non-peak parking lanes on streets such as harrison ave should be used as bus/HOV lanes instead, and the streetcar ROW should be converted to a shared streetcar/bus lane, and camera-enforced.

    • While the population of Downtown, OTR and their surrounding near neighborhoods will certainly factor into the streetcar’s ridership, so will the millions of annual visitors and tens of thousands of workers in the immediate area.

  • Lovinmesomecincinnati

    Next time I visit Cincinnati, which will be soon, I will definitely check out the progress of the rail system downtown. Cincinnati is a true diamond! At least from an outsiders perspective. Exciting to see all the plans for your beautiful downtown!

  • John Schneider

    Travis is right.

    • EDG

      Coming from the guy that wants to bore under Mt. Auburn to complete phase 2

    • Boring a tunnel under Mt. Auburn would make the connection to UC much quicker. Weren’t you just saying that the streetcar will be too slow because it shares ROW with cars downtown?

    • EDG

      Now we have to make the streetcar half subway because the route wasn’t done right the first time

    • EDG

      Have also recently seen general criticism of the efficiency and need for a double loop, look how much length Detroit got with similar cost, that would seem to get you to short vine

  • Jonathan Hay

    We should spend money on those elements that are going to provide the most value: Adding some limited bike infrastructure and lanes on key corridors (eg through 1 street downtown), Western Hills Viaduct, Train w/ Bike on Wasson Way. If there were not federal money and this was purely local, there is no way we would want to spend on projects such as an Oasis passenger line given the small returns and the high cost. I think it’s crazy that we would invest in a street car that does not have it’s own right of way. There is no reason we can not make public transportation a cheaper and faster option than going via car. If you subsidize (parking) and prioritize transportation for cars-only, of course this is what the market will produce.

    • Ian Mitchell

      A land-value tax in cincinnati, charging parking lots the same as the buildings next to them, would do wonders for development and finances of the city of cincinnati.