Ohio Lawmakers Require Norfolk Southern's Name to Appear on Ballot For Rail Sale

Cincinnati voters could decide on the rail sale as early as November.

click to enlarge A Norfolk Southern EMD SD60E rebuilt locomotive. - Photo: 4300streetcar/Wikimedia Commons
Photo: 4300streetcar/Wikimedia Commons
A Norfolk Southern EMD SD60E rebuilt locomotive.

Voters in Cincinnati will be reminded at the ballot that Norfolk Southern is the potential purchaser of the Cincinnati Southern Railway, thanks to language added to House Bill 23, the state’s transportation budget.

Ohio lawmakers reached an agreement this week to allow the proposed sale of the Cincinnati Southern Railway, the only city-owned multi-state railway in the country, to move ahead to Governor Mike DeWine’s desk. Once DeWine signs off, Cincinnati voters will decide whether or not to sell its railroad to Norfolk Southern as early as November.

The sale to Norfolk Southern was contingent on changing a state law to specify how Cincinnati could spend the revenue from the sale – repairing existing infrastructure only – but more language changes were worked into the final bill by lawmakers who are concerned with Norfolk Southern's recent track record.

Those changes include:
  • The ballot language must identify the “buyer” of the railway specifically as “Norfolk Southern.”
  • The sale can only appear on the ballot once in 2023 or 2024. If voters reject the sale, a second attempt would need to be approved by state lawmakers in order to appear on the ballot again.
  • If the principal amount falls below 25%, all payments to the city must stop until the fund accumulates enough interest that it reaches the previous level.

Currently, the city receives $25 million annually to lease the railway to Norfolk Southern. Under the proposed sale, the city would receive $1.6 billion which would be fed into a trust fund known as the "Building Our Future" trust fund. The trust would dole out no less than $25 million to the city each year after the sale, but the mayor says the annual payout could more than double during some years.

The trust fund from the sale would be managed by the Cincinnati Southern Railway board of trustees, whose bylaws mandate that no more than three members of the same political party can sit on the board. Trustees serve five-year terms, and there are no term limits.
Despite the toxic disaster caused by Norfolk Southern in East Palestine, Ohio, executives for the company have told Cincinnati City Council the company will be able to fulfill their financial obligation to the sale. But the legal future for the company is rocky. The Ohio attorney general has filed a 58-count lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, saying the company's negligence and recklessness was to blame for the plume of toxic chemicals released over the homes and waterways in East Palestine.

Cincinnati voters will be the ultimate deciders of the proposed rail sale, but recent polling of Ohioans about the disaster in East Palestine showed overwhelming distrust of the government's handling of the explosion cleanup.

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