How Cincinnati could spend the money from a potential Cincinnati Southern Railway sale
The Cincinnati City Manager's Office is promising to make equity the main focus of spending new revenue from the proposed sale of the city-owned railroad.
On Nov. 7, voters will decide whether Norfolk Southern can buy the Cincinnati Southern Railway for $1.6 billion. The city would invest the money, growing the balance over time and using the earned interest to pay for maintaining city infrastructure.
"I want the community to know we have heard you — this administration hears your voices and where you want resources deployed," City Manager Sheryl Long said this week. "We are working hard every day to build trust. And I want you to know we are fully [aware] some areas of our city have not received equal attention in the past. However, we are challenging ourselves to be transparent."
Professional consultants estimate the city can expect nearly $60 million a year from investment returns — about $25 million a year more than the city currently gets from leasing the railroad to Norfolk Southern.
State law limits use of the funds to maintaining or improving existing infrastructure. As with all city spending, City Council has the final say; in this case, that means which infrastructure projects to fund with the money restricted to that purpose.
In response to a request from City Council, the City Manager's Office put together a plan for how the city could spend an extra $250 million over ten years. The report is divided into five main categories:
- Parks - $40.7 million
- Recreation - $27.6 million
- Streets and sidewalks (transportation infrastructure) - $101 million
- Public services (including police and fire) - $49.6 million
- Health - $31.1 million
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The board of trustees that manages the railroad on behalf of the city established the idea that the revenue should be used for infrastructure; that's how the city has used the lease revenue since the 1980s. And city officials have been talking about the deferred maintenance problem for years.
"We have historically as a city committed the majority of our general capital funds to addressing the existing infrastructure," said Assistant City Manager Billy Webber. "But as we've talked about, those available resources have proved inadequate to keep up with the demands."
Long says her office identified specific projects to prioritize based on condition, equity, cost effectiveness, and project readiness.
Streets and sidewalks: $101 million
- Mill Creek Road (Central Incinerator) Bridge Rehabilitation
- Street rehabilitation
- Converting electric lights to LED
- Improving traffic signals citywide
- Traffic calming: asphalt speed hump reconstruction citywide
- Streetlight replacement in the Central Business District
- Replacing pavers in the crosswalks and sidewalks in Central Business District
"The cost of repaving [streets] continues to grow, but this money would help achieve the 100 lane miles a year goal," Long said. "And importantly, this funding will provide us the opportunity to proactively address pedestrian safety issues — we would be able to deploy more interventions citywide."
Parks: $40.7 million
- Major improvements at multiple parks, including lighting, help box, safety improvements, and cameras
- Mt. Echo Park: pavilion restoration and maintenance garage improvements
- Smale Riverfront: river edge stabilization
- French Park: French House grounds improvements, culvert and turf replacement
- Fairview Park: overlook stabilization
- Ault Park: cascade and pavilion renovation
Recreation: $27.6 million
- Major improvements to two recreation facilities: Dunham and Pleasant Ridge
- Riverside Sports Complex boat dock facilities rehabilitation
- Improvements to three aquatic facilities: Leblond, Winton Hills, and Mt. Adams
- Improving outdoor courts, playgrounds, and lighting at multiple ball fields
Health: $31.1 million
- Replacing the Bobbie Sterne Health Center
- Replacing the CHD Administration Building
- Replacing the Northside Health Center
- Price Hill Health Center interior remodel
- Parking lot improvements and generators at multiple centers
"Our health centers are the unsung heroes for the uninsured," Long said. "We know our citizens deserve great affordable care in a welcoming clean environment. But our facilities don't match the level of care city staff provides."
Public Services: $49.6 million
- Major improvements to fire stations
- Cormany Garage renovation
- College Hill Town Hall renovation
- 801 Linn Street Renovation (Police)
- West Fork Incinerator Demolition and Site Reuse Project
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Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney has expressed hesitation about the sale because of concerns about how the revenue would be spent. In Tuesday's committee meeting, however, she praised the city manager's report.
"It is true in the past our Black communities have been left out, our low income communities have been left out," Kearney said. "And this is a different administration, a different city council that really pushes equity."
Kearney and Council Member Scotty Johnson say they're working on an ordinance to address equity concerns.
What happens next?
The report is essentially hypothetical at this point. For one, voters may oppose the sale on the November ballot. If the sale does pass, actual revenue from the investment account will vary year to year based on market conditions. And City Council has ultimate say over how the city spends money (within the confines imposed by state law).
The budget process each year starts with the city manager's office (typically in close collaboration with the mayor’s office), and city council can make changes before voting on final approval.