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.

KZF Releases Preliminary Designs, Cost Estimates for Wasson Way

A newly released feasibility study, produced by KZF Design, finds that construction of the 6.5-mile Wasson Way Trail would cost anywhere from $7.5 million for just a trail to $36 million for both a light rail line and trail totally separated from one another.

The cost estimates vary so much due to the three potential design options studied. The lowest cost alternative looked at placing a 12-foot-wide trail along the entire existing rail alignment. This, however, would make the inclusion of a future light rail line extremely difficult.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The most expensive alternative would construct an entire new trail alignment that does not interfere with any existing rail right-of-way. This would include the construction of several new bridges and completely preserve the ability to easily construct the long-planned light rail line adjacent to the new trail.

Alternative B, which was recommended by KZF and priced at $11.2 million, was a bit of a hybrid. It would include a 12-foot-wide trail offset from the existing rail alignment, but utilize existing rail right-of-way at pinch points along the corridor.

The 45-page study is the first detailed look at the corridor, which has been hotly debated and discussed over recent years. Much of the controversy has surrounded whether or not both light rail and a trail can be accommodated. KZF’s findings appear to show that much of the corridor could in fact accommodate both, but that some segments may prove to be difficult, albeit feasible.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If project supporters are able to advance the trail plan, KZF estimates that it would connect eight city neighborhoods and approximately 100,000 residents with an overall network of more than 100 miles of trail facilities.

“It is hard to build in the urban core, and to find an intact corridor ripe for development is a unique thing,” explained Eric Oberg, Manager at the Midwest Rails to Trails Conservancy. “If this is done right, this can be the best urban trail in the state of Ohio. I have no doubt.”

Some of the most difficult segments of the corridor are the nine existing bridges where the right-of-way is extremely limited. If both light rail and trail facilities are to traverse this corridor together, additional spans will be needed in order to have safe co-operation.

In addition to introducing what may become the region’s best urban trail and light rail corridor, some proponents also see it as an opportunity to fix other problems along the route. Most notably that includes the congested and confusing intersection of Madison, Edwards and Wasson Roads near Rookwood Pavilion.

While the newly released feasibility study offers the most detailed analysis of this corridor to date, the City of Cincinnati has yet to close on its purchase of the former freight rail line from Norfolk Southern.

City officials are reportedly in negotiations with Norfolk Southern now, and have made an initial offer of $2 million. In April, Mayor Cranley’s Administration also allocated $200,000 to the project.

Bus Stop Removal Could Enhance Service Times

As any frequent Cincinnati Metro rider knows, it seems like the bus stops at almost every block in the city. Would reducing the number of bus stops help make bus transit more efficient? A recent study released done by researchers at George Mason University looks at a hypothetical 43% reduction in bus stops in Fairfax, Virginia. Their results are worth checking into. More from Governing:

When bus stops are frequent, not only do buses have to stop more often to pick up and drop off passengers, they also use value time accelerating and decelerating. Those two factors alone can take up to 26 percent of total bus travel times. All that stopping and starting can also increase emissions.

Nationally, most bus riders — about 75 percent to 80 percent of them — walk less than a quarter mile to bus stops. But Zolnik’s study assumed that, in this case, most passengers could walk half a mile to stop, since many of the riders are young, healthy students.

Cincinnati Region Seems Interested by Merger of Local Governments

The editorial we published on Monday has received a lot of attention. Not only has there been a huge and productive discussion in the story’s comment section, but it is generating conversation, all over town, about the idea of consolidating local governments.

The Business Courier looked at our editorial and provided their own perspective on the matter. Cincinnati Blog did the same. Then yesterday I was asked to join Scott Sloan on his morning talk show on 700WLW to further discuss the matter.

Proposed Hamilton County Municipal Mergers

While there has been a wide variety of feedback and opinions, one thing seems to be clear. The way our local governments are currently fragmented does not make sense. It does not make sense with regards to the provision of public services or for the value of taxpayer dollars.

We had already been planning to follow-up on this issue prior to the huge response, but now we feel that the topic really needs to be discussed and pursued even more aggressively.

In the meantime, feel free to listen to the 10 to 12 minute conversation I had with Scott Sloan yesterday. You can listen to it on 700WLW’ website, or you can stream it above.

Cincinnati Moves Forward With Land Use Study of Wasson Railroad Corridor

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.


The proposed Wasson Way Trail would use the Norfolk Southern Railroad right-of-way to create a bike trail from the Little Miami Trail to Xavier University. Image provided.

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.