Cincinnati Reaches Agreement With Norfolk Southern on Purchase of Wasson Railroad Corridor

Cincinnati City Council’s Neighborhoods Committee gave a unanimous okay to an ordinance that would solidify an agreement to purchase 4.1 miles of railroad right-of-way from Norfolk Southern for $11.8 million, providing a key piece of the 7.6-mile Wasson Way recreational trail.

The agreement would give the City a two-year purchase option for the property, which extends between the Montgomery-Dana intersection along the Norwood/Evanston line to the intersection of Red Bank and Wooster roads in Columbia Township.

The ordinance was a last minute by-leave item on the committee calendar, made necessary due to a TIGER grant application that is due on Friday. Project backers are seeking $17 million of the $20 million project cost, and City support makes their application much more attractive.

The trail has been in the works since 2011, and a group of nearly 20 volunteers with the Wasson Way nonprofit got a big boost when Mayor John Cranley (D), City Manager Harry Black, and City staff assisted with the negotiations.

“We started looking at the TIGER grant application,” said Mel McVay, senior planner at Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation & Engineering. “They really talk about ‘ladders of opportunity’, increasing mobility and accessibility for folks throughout the region, and so we saw an opportunity between the property we could purchase and some property we already had, and some existing trails.”

Director of Department of Trade and Development Oscar Bedolla spelled out the project’s urgency.

“One of the statutory requirements associated with the scoring for TIGER is related to readiness,” he said. “And so, the more that we can do to show that the project is potentially shovel-ready enhances our ability to acquire or be selected for TIGER funding.”

Bedolla added that under the terms of the agreement, the City would pay nothing in the first year if it does not proceed with the purchase. If the purchase is pursued within the second year, there would be a 5% fee added to the price.

The City’s matching funding of between $3 million and $4 million for construction costs could be made up of a combination of state and federal grants, plus funds raised by Wasson Way, he said.

Still up in the air is approximately two miles or the corridor between the Columbia Township end point and Newtown, where it could connect with the Little Miami Scenic Trail.

“We’re working on it,” McVay said. “Unfortunately, the railroad was not open to selling any additional property east of that point. We’re investigating three or four ways that we can get farther east to the existing Little Miami Trail. We’re very confident we can get there.”

David Dawson, a resident of Mt. Lookout and realtor with Sibcy Cline, expressed concern about how a long-envisioned light rail line could be brought to the corridor once its freight rail designation is abandoned – a legal process that is handled by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

“It just can’t be said enough, in my view, that the City will now become the steward of a very valuable asset,” Dawson said. “This is a regional corridor that, in this day and age, cannot really be duplicated. If we lose that ability to eventually have transit, rail transit, or some sort of transit in the future, we won’t be able to put it back.

Dawson and other rail advocates are calling for the corridor to be railbanked, so that the addition of light rail transit remains an option in the future.

“This doesn’t just connect our neighborhoods, but in the future it has the potential to connect the entire region out to Clermont County,” Dawson said.

The use of this corridor has long been eyed for light rail transit, including in the 2002 MetroMoves regional transit plan. A 2014 study by KZF Design recommended a design solution that would preserve the ability to develop both light rail transit and a trail; and estimated that such an approach would bring the cost of developing the trail to approximately $11.2 million.

Andrea Yang, senior assistant City solicitor, said that the purchase agreement would give the City some time to work out those issues.

“The way that the abandonment process is structured, there is a time period which we could utilize to further investigate other options,” Yang said. “Had we chosen to railbank the property and attempt to preserve it, it would actually follow the same process for abandonment, so there’s definitely time to look into that if that is what Council’s interested in seeing.”

In April, Cincinnati’s Planning Commission voted to place an Interim Development Control Overlay District on this corridor in order to give the city more time to allow plans to progress without new development creating new conflicts.

  • Steve Ramos

    Thanks #UrbanCincy & #DavidDawson for maintaining a macro view of the Wasson Way project when so many want to shrink it into an Eastside bike path. Let’s continue to build our conversation around preserving Wasson for future transit. Let’s remind city decision-makers why transit is important to making Greater Cincinnati a more vital and vibrant region.

  • Matt Jacob

    Getting control of the Wasson Way corridor into public hands again is a great win for the future of transit in our region. It’s great that they’ve been able to come to an agreement with the railroad.

    Once it transfers into public hands, we’ve got to be vigilant that this critical regional link isn’t degraded or broken though. We’ve already seen the anti-transit folks try to block rail in the city through referendum.

  • TimSchirmang

    I disagree that a macro view supports a rail solution to the
    detriment of bike/ped use.

    I look at a map of the corridor and see an opportunity of a
    certain geographic scale, where bike and pedestrian use is just as utilitarian
    and beneficial as light rail. This is only a 4 mile stretch of right of way
    routed entirely through dense neighborhoods. Many short car trips could be replaced
    by functional use of the trail to connect residents to stores, schools, places
    of work, etc. Qualitatively, this use qualifies as a transit solution just as
    much as larger scale, longer distance light rail. A bike/ped trail is also more
    efficient for users because it does not have the wait times and limited station
    locations of rail.

    If rail advocates are only interested in transit of a
    greater scale, i.e. between downtown and suburbs, or even regionally as David
    Dawson points out, this little stretch is neither as rare nor as necessary as
    rail folks claim. In fact its routing through dense neighborhoods would
    actually impair its use as a transit option for people farther out. Think of
    the congestion on the old Fort Washington Way, with its excessive on and off ramps,
    as an imperfect example of this effect.

    In addition to bike/ped use being a good fit on a geographic
    scale, it makes total sense on a time scale. The life cycle of light rail, from
    planning through infrastructure replacement, is 50-75+ years. Think about
    Cincinnati’s transit needs 50 or 75 years ago. The Madison line streetcar that
    came out along Erie Ave was still a bustling people mover. What about 50-75
    years from now? Maybe streetcars will
    come back as an alternative alignment to Wasson Way to get people downtown.
    Maybe car sharing and driverless cars will dramatically alleviate road
    congestion. Maybe people will ride on drones, or maybe not commute to work at

    This uncertainty doesn’t plague the pike/ped
    proposal and its near-term scale. As an existing corridor presently surrounded
    by people eager to put it to use, any use, (other than a poison ivy preserve)
    Wasson Way as a bike/ped path makes so much sense as a modest transit
    improvement. By dismissing it as a silly recreational path, die-hard rail folks
    lose credibility as proponents of transit, on a macro level.

    • Did you really just suggest that the density and central location of this corridor would serve as a detriment to a light rail line?

      You seem to be holding on to a notion that we need to be making it easier for people to commute in/out of the city from far-reaching suburbs. This is a bad approach for a number of reasons, but it is particularly bad from a transit planning perspective. Transit lines built in densely populated areas are the most successful and have the highest ridership. They are also able to serve the roughly 80% of trips made that have nothing to do with our daily commutes.

    • TimSchirmang

      No I didn’t suggest that. I stated, “its routing through dense neighborhoods would actually impair its use as a transit option for people farther out”. No commas, no periods. This isn’t my notion either, just a nod to Dawson’s point about it serving regional importance. To me ‘regional’ means at least Hamilton County, probably beyond, so yes, far reaching suburbs.

      Other than that, you help make my point. If light rail were set up to accommodate short transit demand within the dense Wasson corridor (frequent stations/stops), it must sacrifice to some extent the ‘express’ service that folks wanting to bypass the corridor would prefer. This isn’t to say it would be useless for regional riders, but that … (read quote again)

    • EDG

      Even if you’re at the western end of the trail, you’re still 4 1/2 miles from downtown. That may not be regional enough for you but that’s still a distance where BRT or rail makes sense.

      Wasson’s location also is a nice fit through neighborhoods that were formerly served by streetcars and interurbans.

    • TimSchirmang

      I’m for improving connections between these neighborhoods and downtown, and BRT makes a lot of sense as a starting point at least. Metro as is isn’t bad, not sure how you break the stigma and get more people to adopt it though. I can see streetcar lines returning and being very useful. These options can coexist on roadways, but functional biking struggles mightily for obvious safety reasons.

    • EDG

      Drive Wasson Rd and tell me what a trail is going to do other than be a nice recreational path for people the adjoining neighborhood. The trail is miles and years away from connecting to the Little Miami to the east (assuming that route is a priority for suburban communities, which it’s not), and the trail is supposed to make some indirect, meandering route to the hospitals thrown in at the last minute to try to get some Fed money. As far as usefulness, I have a hard time seeing much benefit beyond recreation, which isn’t about transit.

    • I am entertained by the idea that this route will be used by commuters to travel into Downtown Cincinnati. Maybe a dozen people or so will use it for this purpose. But the primary purpose will be recreation. In fact, the path will probably be full of people walking leisurely and parents pushing strollers most of the time. Anyone on a bike will have to ride very slowly with extreme caution around these people. This is not going to be anywhere close the bike highway some people envision.

    • EDG

      Yeah, and they cited the Monon Trail in Indianapolis as a case study which is 18 miles long and connects cities in an adjacent county to downtown.

      To show you their intent, HP had bike lanes striped down Erie and they had the city remove them because it was confusing for drivers. This really isn’t about making a bike highway downtown. It’s a pet project as you said that city hall has wasted enough time on.

    • TimSchirmang

      I don’t see a lot of downtown commuter biking happening either. I see Xavier students using it, and perhaps UC too if the uptown connection is reasonable. I imagine Rookwood and hyde park plaza quick retail trips happening along the trail. There are a number of modest office/job locations along the trail that might host daily commuter use. And yes, plenty of strollers/walkers/runners and rec use for sure. I would expect it to often be too crowded to use for serious sport cyclists – different feel than Loveland path, and too short by itself.

  • Kevin LeMaster

    UPDATE: The purchase was approved by the full Council today, 8-0.