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City council discusses future of Cincinnati Southern Railway at committee meeting

map of Cincinnati Southern Railway.JPG
Posted at 11:09 AM, Feb 13, 2023

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati city council members will discuss the future of the Cincinnati Southern Railway at a budget and finance committee meeting Monday afternoon.

The agenda suggests the city-owned railway's "overview and next steps" will be presented to committee members during the 1 p.m. meeting.

Cincinnati is the only municipality in the U.S. to own an interstate railroad, though in November 2022 trustees of the Cincinnati Southern Railway voted unanimously to sell it to Norfolk Southern. The sale was to be for around $1.6 billion. Currently, the city makes around $25 million annually from the railroad.

During Monday's committee meeting, many argued the $1.6 million from the sale would increase over time.

But that deal isn't anticipated to go through for quite some time.

The closing of the sale can't happen without the approval of voters in Cincinnati, regulatory clearance from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and "passage of proposed state law changes," according to a press release from the city in Nov. 2021.

Currently, state law demands the funds from the sale be spent paying off Cincinnati's debts, which the city said wouldn't happen; the sale would therefore only make it onto a ballot if state lawmakers passed a bill that would allow the funds to be used for current infrastructure.

Then, in December 2021, legislative discussions in the sale of Cincinnati Southern Railway were halted when the Ohio Senate president tabled the issue. The progress of the amendment for which Cincinnati was waiting slowed to a crawl; Ohio Senators Bill Blessing and George Lang, both involved in discussions surrounding the amendment, expressed concerns about pushing the legislation through too quickly.

"The idea was to get this amendment through in presumably lame duck," Blessing said in December. "That's what they were pushing for, and then as the legislation states, they have to take this to the ballot. I just had problems with, you know, trying to do this in lame duck as an amendment. I just felt like it needed a lot more process a lot more public input."

Lang said he was ready to go but said "there's probably some wisdom in putting the brakes on (it) a bit" to ensure nothing goes wrong or impacts taxpayers.

Blessing said the amendment will likely go to the transportation budget for March approval. The city said the issue will not be on the ballot until changes are made to how the funds can be used.

The line has been leased by Norfolk Southern since 1981; in 1987, Norfolk Southern and the Cincinnati Southern Railway agreed to extend the lease through 2026. In 2021, that lease was again extended to 2051, meaning if Cincinnati sells the railway, whichever company purchases it will have to maintain the lease to Norfolk Southern.

That commitment to Norfolk Southern has given some members of city council pause, after one of the company's trains derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3. That derailment has led to safety concerns for surrounding communities and those further away who fear drinking water contamination; the cars carried a variety of things, including vinyl choride, which sent up a toxic plume in the small town after the fiery crash.

"Personally, I do not believe it would be in our best interest to work with an organization like this until more research has been done how these events unfolded, how damaging the environment the quality of living is," said Jack Cunningham, a Cincinnati resident who spoke at the committee meeting.

The railway, which runs from Cincinnati to Chattanooga, TN, stretches 336 miles through Kentucky and Tennessee. The last rail spike was driven in on Dec. 10, 1879 and the first route from Cincinnati to Chattanooga was completed just one year later in 1880.

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