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Cincinnati voters approve sale of the nation’s only city-owned railway

A Norfolk Southern train on the Cincinnati Southern Railway in Queensgate, looking east toward downtown Cincinnati.
Becca Costello
A Norfolk Southern train on the Cincinnati Southern Railway in Queensgate, looking east toward downtown Cincinnati.

On Tuesday, voters all over Ohio decided to protect abortion access and legalize marijuana, but Cincinnati voters made another big decision: to sell the city’s railroad.

The Cincinnati Southern Railway is the only interstate railroad in the country that’s municipally owned.

Now that voters have approved its sale, ownership will pass on to Norfolk Southern — the same company behind the train derailment in East Palestine earlier this year.

Local government reporter Becca Costello, with Ohio Newsroom member station WVXU, has been reporting on the issue and joined the Ohio Newsroom to discuss the decision.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

On how Cincinnati came to own its railroad

“The city actually built the railroad in the late 1800s. Cincinnati, as many people know, is a river city, and economically, that was a big advantage. But, when the economy started shifting to rail, that became a threat to the economic health of the city. Private companies weren't building rail here – at least not as quickly as city officials wanted. So the city decided to build a railway to make sure that commerce was moving through the city.

“The city never intended to operate the railway, so they've been leasing it to an external company from the very beginning, and for a long time it's only ever been used for freight. It's not like people are traveling back and forth on this railway, it's just a freight service.”

On how Cincinnatians voted

“The officials that oversee the railway, which is a board appointed by city leaders, decided about a year ago they wanted to sell, but they needed voter approval in order to do that. So voters, on their ballot, saw a simple yes or no vote: should the city sell or not? And the voters decided to approve the sale.”

On the role of Norfolk Southern

“Norfolk Southern is the buyer because they're already using the railway, and they have been for decades under a lease agreement with the city. So, the actual operation of the railway will not change at all, it's just the financials of who owns it. It's really only valuable to Norfolk Southern right now, not other rail companies that have other North-South lines to move their freight.

“But the derailment [in East Palestine] absolutely had an effect on this race. The sale was first announced at the end of 2022. That derailment [happened] just a few months later, and really escalated the conversation about this sale in a big way. The result was a very close race — approval was just with about 52% of the vote, a difference of about 2,500 votes. But it’s important to note, nothing about safety oversight actually changes with the sale. All safety regulations are controlled at the federal level, so the city is not giving up any kind of regulatory oversight by selling it to Norfolk Southern.”

On what the sale means for Cincinnati

“The deal is for about $1.6 billion, which the city will get in one lump sum payment. They're planning to put the money in a trust fund and they'll invest it in the market, like a retirement fund. They'll only spend the interest earned on the trust. The goal is not to spend down the principal, so that $1.6 billion will remain intact and continue growing.

“The city can only spend anything from the fund — the investment returns or the principal — to maintain or replace current infrastructure: things like repaving streets, taking care of city buildings like police and fire stations, [and maintaining] parks and recreation centers. The city has an estimated $400 million backlog of these infrastructure maintenance issues that haven't been taken care of over the last several decades. So, really, this is about digging out of a very big hole. It's not about doing a bunch of shiny new things.”

Becca Costello is a local government reporter for WVXU in Cincinnati.
Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.