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What to Do With Wasson Way

Bike trail advocates find resistance from light rail supporters

By Hannah McCartney · March 13th, 2012 · News
There’s a stretch of old railroad tracks running through the bustling, lively area of Hyde Park just off the Smith-Edwards Road exit. Businesses thrive among a quiet, upscale residential area; children board buses for school. Just to the side of the road, though — away from the life and hullabaloo — is something very different. Something lifeless. 

It is a set of abandoned railroad tracks, called “Wasson Way,” that haven’t felt the touch of a train since 2009, when transportation company Norfolk Southern stopped service along the stretch. The tracks span 6.5 miles, beginning near Xavier University, snaking through some of Cincinnati’s healthiest residential and business districts, including Evanston, Norwood, Hyde Park, Oakley, Mount Lookout, Fairfax and Mariemont, and ending near the 78-mile Little Miami Bike Trail. 

During the past three years, the rust-ridden spurs only offer life to unkempt tufts of grass and the occasional wave of graffiti.  

Even with the overgrowth, the tracks have hardly gone unnoticed. Norfolk Southern still owns the land, but as the property is threatened by decomposition and the looming threat of developer buyouts, debates about what to do with the space have heated up. And Norfolk Southern hasn’t been involved in the dialogue at all — the company has made no plans to sell, update or maintain the property, according to a statement from Dave Pidgeon, manager of public relations for Norfolk Southern.

As Norfolk Southern remains apathetic about the state of the tracks, coalitions have formed to transform the prime real estate into something greater. Now, the differing visions of the two sides — bike trail and light rail — are holding up any Cincinnati City Council decision on how to move forward. 

The Wasson Way Project (the “bike” side) advocates the transformation of the tracks into a bike and pedestrian trail. Jay Andress, president of the project, says the trail would link 120,000 Cincinnatians to more than 100 miles of bike trails stretching all the way north into Springfield, Ohio, with spurs reaching as far as Dayton, thanks to the trails’ proximity to the famed Little Miami Trail. “What’s missing is the connection to Cincinnati — that’s what Wasson would do,” Andress said at a March 6 meeting of City Council’s strategic growth committee. “And a bike trail in the middle of a city? I can’t think of anything better you could do for your citizens.” 

The Wasson Way Project’s mission is both to preserve a valuable transportation gateway and bring an influx of economic growth to Cincinnati via cycling tourism. 

“Open spaces like this aren’t available very often.

This opportunity is literally one in a million for Cincinnati,” Eric Oberg, Midwest manager of trail development at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, said at the meeting. 

A Hyde Park business recently asked to purchase a portion of the strip of track from Norfolk Southern to pave over for a parking lot. Although Norfolk Southern was willing to comply, Cincinnati City Council stepped in to preserve the trail. But it’s not realistic to guard the land forever, says Laure Quinlivan, the councilwoman who heads the strategic growth committee. 

That’s what the “light rail” side wants City Council to do — essentially make the land off-limits until construction to install light rail tracks begins. The theory is that the trail is so valuably situated that it deserves a place as an actual means of transportation, not a product of recreation.

But a light rail project is a sizably larger undertaking than paving a bike trail, and, unlike the trail campaigners, light rail advocates don’t seem to have much of a proposal; it’s just an idea at this point. 

“The light rail people don’t have any plan whatsoever to preserve the land right now. It could be 20 years before a light rail is feasibly built, and what are we going to do in the meantime with that land? Let it sit? We can’t do that,” Quinlivan says.  

Bike trail advocates are willing to sign a document offering the light rail legal precedence over the bike trail in the future, meaning if a plan does come about, any and all of the bike trail can be destroyed to make way for the light rail. “Mass transit and bike trail folks should be natural allies,” says Oberg.

“The key point is that this rail corridor must be kept in public ownership … if there’s not a plan in place to preserve it, it can be sold to anyone,” Oberg adds. “Once these corridors go away, they’re never coming back. We have to preserve this; we’re all fighting the same fight here.” 

Urban planner Randy Simes recently released two editorials in favor of the light rail option on his blog, UrbanCincy. Despite the promise of a legal document favoring the light rail, Simes remains skeptical that the change would ever actually occur.

“It may seem frustrating to leave the Wasson Line in its current state of appearance, but it will be much more frustrating to jeopardize one of the best potential light rail corridors envisioned for the region,” Simes wrote in a March 5 blog post. He notes case studies from all over the nation show that once a former rail line is converted for a different use, it is nearly impossible to take back the land for rail purposes. Simes ardently supports bike transportation, but is perturbed that construction of light rail over an already existing bike trail would put an unfair monetary burden on the light rail side to deconstruct the already-existing steel tracks and bike trail. 

Bike trail advocates insist that Simes’ perspective is misinformed.

Even without the bike trail in place, a quick survey of the 6.5-mile stretch makes it clear there are several spots along Wasson Way that aren’t wide enough for light rail; what exists now is a single strip of train track, and a light rail requires two strips — standard measurements for the design of bi-directional traffic mandate 28 feet of right-of-way. That means extensive construction will be required to even make the double tracks feasible in the first place.

In other words, the “burden” will be placed on the light rail project regardless. 

Quinlivan says that City Council won’t vote on a motion for Wasson Way until she sees some positive dialogue between the two sides, so the bike trail supporters are working to schedule a meeting with the UrbanCincy crowd to talk logistics.  

Oberg says he’s disappointed by the backlash from rail activists but remains optimistic about the future, insisting a mere discussion between the two sides will clear up any bad blood. “I’d really be surprised if we weren’t singing ‘Kumbaya’ after 30 minutes of sitting down and talking in the same room.”  ©



03.14.2012 at 10:28 Reply

This article seems pretty bias towards the bike trail project. It's sad to see that people really see a bike trail as having any benefit to the area. There is no potential for growth with a bike trail. A bike trail is also not a very viable way to connect people to downtown, which is something that Wasson has the potential for. A bike trail in the middle of the city? I can't think of a WORSE thing to do with this property. Leave the bike trails to the senic areas. And put light rail where it needs to be, and where it can have a significant positive impact.


03.14.2012 at 11:00

The writer missed that when the railroad was built back in the 1800s, enough land was purchased to enable its eventual double tracking.  So although the freight line was never double tracked, Norfolk-Southern still owns a 30-foot right-of-way (it is clearly visible on the Hamilton County Auditor's website) sufficient for a double tracked transit line.  There is not sufficient space for a two track transit line and the recreational trail, so it's one or the other unless $100 million is spent to build the transit line in a tunnel, with the rec trail above.


03.14.2012 at 12:11

@ Aaron, bike trails in urban areas raise property values.  My previous home in Michigan had a bike trail nearby which connected to our subdivision.  Everytime a home nearby was listed for sale one of the key selling points was the proximately to the rails to trail path. 

Also, if you refer to the Wasson Way facebook page you'll see pictures that show there are many parts of the proposed path that are quiet scenic and are hidden escapes from the busy streets around the area.

Lastly, how exactly does this have the potential to connect people to downtown via light rail?  As far as i can tell the tracks end around Xavier.  Given the time it took to get the street car moving, i don't see how we can expect to have light rail to downtown anytime soon.


03.14.2012 at 11:54 Reply

I wonder if this bike trail would see significant traffic. Consider how many people a light rail train could move into and out of the city center, probably A LOT more than a bike trail. This project would only benefit the areas directly around Wasson Way, and would not economically benefit the region like light rail would.


03.14.2012 at 12:21 Reply

A bike trail would receive significant traffic. All you have to do is look anywhere in Hyde Park/Oakley and see runners EVERYWHERE. People want to live near bike trails. I fully support rail but the reality is that a bike trail is much more likely in the near future than rail. The money for rail is not there. When the time comes for rail the area can be converted back to rail. It would be a shame to let the land sit empty for years waiting for something to happen.


03.14.2012 at 12:37 Reply

To clear up a few items:

1.  The Wasson Rd. railroad has been a part of regional light rail planning since OKI's first study of it in 1979.  Trains would reach UC and downtown via the abandoned CL&N right-of-way or a new line traveling partly below ground through the UC/Hospitals area.  If the 2002 Metro Moves tax had passed, light rail would have been constructed on the Wasson line soon after it was abandoned in 2009. 

2. After Obama is reelected, there will likely be a large round of rail grants awarded directly to cities and transit agencies.  Cincinnati needs about $200 million to extend the streetcar from Findlay Market to Xavier University.

3. After the streetcar opens in 2014, a countywide transit tax will likely be placed on the ballot soon thereafter.  If it passes, we will see construction of a rail transit line on the Wasson right-of-way by 2020. 



03.14.2012 at 02:13

I ride a bike 9 miles to work and the route involves significant elevation change. I have my vehilcle at work. I can drive my car when I want, but as gas aproches $4 the bike is still more attactive to me than a bus and bus schedule. The Wasson Way is being poo-pooed by people who don't look at why light rail failed when it existed and bikes are on an upswing. Even if you look at light rail in its prime you should note bikes conveyed more people to work then. Having a former rail as a bike trail is a valid inexpensive option to bank the corrudor till light rail becomes feasable again (if ever). It is efficent for bikes to increase thier range as it avoids the hills.  At this point I am not voting for light rail as the investment to get me all the places my bike can go is not feasable and if it is too far to bike a car is likley to be my choice. I often combine car and bike transportation meeting my wife in the evening. Bike transport and light rail is only done in europe and would likley not be planned unless bike advocates win the small battles. Any trip not self propelled when it could be reducess the health of our nation. Yesterday a driver tried to tell me it is illegal to ride a bike on the road (Kemper Ave). We need both roads and bike ways to improve city access to non car travel. Rail doesn't get you to a final destination only where it goes.


03.14.2012 at 02:13

Unfortunately I don't see light rail happening soon enough to warrant leaving the tracks empty for so many years.

In addition, people in Hyde Park have been up in arms over lesser things and I imagine many people in the expensive homes along the tracks would go crazy if more than a couple trains passed by daily.  Bikes are one thing..trains would be completely different.


03.14.2012 at 01:59 Reply

I can see pros for both uses of this old railroad... and as a fan of cycling and trains, I'm torn over how to use the track.

The Cincinnati area is not very bike friendly.  It's one of the big reasons I haven't gotten heavily back into riding since moving here in 2001.  I grew up in Lexington, KY and didn't bother getting my license until I was 23 because I could bike everywhere.  I didn't need to spend the money on a car when I had a perfectly good Specialized Stump Jumper to get me where I needed to be.

Unless a person happens to live by the LMT or near downtown, where they can ride along the river, there's not much in the way of bike trails (or bike friendly roads).  I'd LOVE a way to ride from Forest Park to downtown by bike, safely.  I miss my Specialized.  I miss biking everywhere and miss living in a city with bike lanes.

I know there are bike fans in this city.

I also feel Cincinnati is way behind other major cities when it comes to our mass transit.  I look at San Francisco, Chicago, New York, DC, Baltimore, Philly and many other cities I've visited over my career and they all have very easy, affordible light rail systems.

To "enjoy" mass transit here in Cincinnati, I had to first drive to Tri-County Mall at 5:45am and catch the Downtown Express bus.  I was limited by how long I could work because the last bus back to Forest Park left at 6pm, unless I wanted a 3 hour bus ride back via the "scenic route" up Winton Rd or Vine St./Route 4.

Sure, it was cheaper than parking downtown and paying for gas, but all it took was one really late night at the office, past when the buses stopped going out to Forest Park, to completely defeat the purpose of the Express bus.  I ended up ditching bus travel and driving every day.

Now I work in Dayton, so light rail wouldn't help me, but it would be great for business travelers coming in from the airport and kids traveling back and forth from campus.  It would also be great for traveling back and forth across the river from Kentucky.  (Downtown Pittsburgh comes to mind...  All downtown travel on the light rail system within a certain zone was free, everything else cost depending on how far out you went.)