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Supporters, opponents make final push to sway voters on proposed sale of Cincinnati Southern Railway

Cincinnati Southern Railway
Posted at 6:35 PM, Nov 06, 2023

CINCINNATI — Supporters and opponents of Issue 22 are making a last-minute push to Cincinnati voters.

The ballot issue asks Cincinnati voters to approve the sale of the Cincinnati Southern Railway to Norfolk Southern. If approved, Cincinnati would receive $1.6 billion, which would be put into a trust fund to be used for improving existing infrastructure in Cincinnati.

Supporters of the sale say it’s money the city desperately needs. City leaders say the city is facing about $400 million in deferred capital maintenance projects at places like public health centers, parks and fire stations.

“If we don't (sell), our alternatives are to reduce the footprint of the city or to increase the earnings tax and the property tax in order to have the money to pay for the things that we desperately need,” said Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval.

City leaders toured some of the sites where maintenance has been deferred earlier this year, including fire stations and recreation centers that don’t meet current safety and building codes.

“Some of our playground equipment is really old and falling apart,” said Cincinnati Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney. “There are some places like in Evanston where the bathrooms are crime-taped up and you can't go in there.”

RELATED | 'We’ve dug a very large hole for ourselves': Cincinnati leaders tour sites with deferred maintenance needs

Currently, the city makes roughly $25 million annually from leasing the railway.

The Cincinnati Southern Railway Board of Trustees has said the $1.6 billion trust fund will likely more than double what future railroad lease payments would have garnered for the city.

Some opponents argue it’s a bad idea to sell a public asset the city has owned for more than 150 years.

“I’m a person that really believes that we should keep this asset for our children's children,” said former Cincinnati Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman. “There is no way if we sell this asset, we'll ever get it back.”

Smitherman thinks there are better ways to use the asset that would allow Cincinnati to get money for necessary projects without having to sell the railway.

Other opponents argue the offer from Norfolk Southern is too low, and that there hasn’t been enough transparency about the process.

“This deal was cooked up in one of the most exclusive private clubs in the city of Cincinnati,” said Pete Witte, an opponent who has worked with the Save Our Rail political action committee.

RELATED | To sell or not to sell? Voters will decide what happens with Cincinnati Southern Railway

The city hosted three community workshops to inform the public about the proposed sale in late October and early November, but Witte said it was “too little, too late.”

“Once they started to hear the steady drumbeat of the opposition and one of the things being this lack of community input, then they scurry together these public listening sessions and tried to get out and make up for months and months of time,” he said.

Cincinnati voters will have the final say at the polls on Tuesday.

You can read more about the details of the proposed sale here.

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