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.” ©