icture an epic trip on a dedicated bike trail from downtown Cincinnati to the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland. Or, if you’re less ambitious, visualize a Saturday jaunt from Milford to downtown. Both are surprisingly close to reality, and the city’s effort to pave an unused set of railroad tracks to make a bike path on Cincinnati’s East Side could be one of the final pieces to those puzzles.
But there are some obstacles. The Indiana and Ohio Railway Company runs a freight line two times a day on a neighboring set of tracks just eight feet from the proposed bike trail. The company, which is owned by Genesee and Wyoming Railways, says it’s not safe to put a bike path there. What’s more, they say they have the right to run trains on the neighboring track as well, even though the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority owns that track. That’s set up a clash. The fate of the bike path now rests with SORTA, which must decide whether to green light the city’s plan and allow the track it oversees to be paved over.
After more than a decade of debate over the right plan for a bike path on the city’s East Side, Cincinnati City Council last October decided to pave over an unused rail line along a four-mile stretch of the so-called Oasis Corridor between Lunken Airport and downtown. The decision has aroused a good deal of fanfare in a city waking up to the merits of cycling for recreation and transportation. Many residents are clamoring for the long-promised trail, and the city would like to make it happen after spending years trying to find a way to build a path from downtown and help fill in a piece of the bigger, state-spanning bike trail.
Rodney Johannigman, a business consultant who lives in Columbia Tusculum, says he rides in the area frequently but doesn’t always feel safe on busy roads like Eastern Avenue.
“My wife won’t ride them at all,” Johannigman says. “As a result, what we end up doing is putting our bikes on the back of our car and driving out to Newtown and ride out to Loveland. We usually have dinner or lunch, spend some money. It’s surprising how many of our neighbors we see out there as well. All of us would rather ride our bikes from where we live to downtown.”
That kind of activity could be a big boon to communities along the route, like Columbia Tusculum, boosters say, bringing bike-related business to the neighborhood the same way a popular bike trail from Newtown to Loveland currently does.
“Much like the trail in Loveland, new businesses, retail and eateries will be attracted to this neighborhood,” says Kathy Hikey, president of Columbia Tusculum Community Council. “It will make Columbia Tusculum a destination, much like Loveland is a destination, instead of just a pass-through on the way to downtown.”
That kind of support appears to be broad-based. A group of east siders called Ohio River Way has been advocating for the project for years. They’ve raised more than $1 million toward building the $4 million bike path.
More recently, Scott Goodfellow, who is on the board of directors for the Cincinnati Cycle Club, started a petition asking SORTA to green-light the path. Goodfellow claims he has collected more than 2,000 paper and online signatures urging SORTA to approve the trail.
The plan also has some big-name boosters, including Mayor John Cranley and Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune. U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, both from Ohio, have also penned letters of support for the project.
“If you think about what this can do … this will give us the kind of access right into the heart of downtown that would be hard for most cities to replicate,” Cranley told SORTA. “I know that there are businesses that are served by active rail, and they were there before the development, and I think they deserve to exist and they have a right to receive the service that they have received. I don’t think anyone is opposing that.”
In 2008, the Federal Transit Authority refused to back similar plans, but Portune believes it will approve the current plan if safety precautions such as fences are included and if SORTA gives its thumbs up. The FTA must give its approval because when SORTA spent $4 million, most of it federal dollars, to buy the right of way to the tracks in 1996, it indicated it was doing so to create commuter rail, not a bike path. Portune and some other advocates say they support the trail as long as it leaves the possibility for commuter rail on the table.
But the Indiana and Ohio Railway says the safety issues and impediment to business just aren’t worth it and that the trail should be built elsewhere.
“The second track is not just any old track,” Commercial Vice President Marty Pohlod told SORTA at a public hearing Feb. 20. “The rail line out there is a unique economic engine in our community. It’s very rare to have this sort of link between rail and river. Once you lose something like that, you can’t get it back. We’re not opposed to bike trails, we’re just not in favor of it at this particular location.”
Mark Darrow, manager of marketing and sales for the railway, came to the meeting in a neon yellow reflective vest like those worn by rail workers to underscore the level of safety the industry requires when in close proximity to trains. Others echoed those safety concerns.
“I think it would be great for the city of Cincinnati. Just not next to an operating rail line,” says Brian Collins, who runs the Cincinnati Dinner Train. That train runs on the active Oasis Line every Saturday night. Collins says people sometimes try to jump up onto his trains.
“We’re talking eight feet between the moving train and a bike path. Railroad professionals are taught 30 feet between a moving train. I don’t want to go home Saturday night having run over a kid.”
But trail advocates say safety concerns are a non-issue. They point out that trains on the Oasis line are limited to 10 miles an hour. They also cite the 200 existing “rail-to-trail” projects across the country, including many that exist alongside active rail lines. These include the Simon Kenton Trail, a meandering 18-mile stretch that runs from Urbana to Springfield, often alongside a train line operated by Indiana and Ohio Railway. The trail runs close to the rail in places, though not as close as the Oasis path would.
“This is something that’s not uncommon,” says Jack Sutton, executive director for Great Parks Hamilton County. “It’s done all over Ohio and all over the country.”
Sutton says he supports the project, calling it “a very important component regionally to connect Northern Kentucky to Cincinnati and beyond to Northern Ohio.”
When finished, the 17-mile Ohio River Trail would link Cincinnati to a network of other trails that could soon run all the way up to Cleveland and south into Kentucky. The four-mile stretch in question is one of the last legs needed between Cincinnati and Columbus on the so-called Ohio to Erie Trail, which was first proposed in 1991 as a route between Cincinnati and Cleveland. A few small stretches still need to be completed from Columbus to Cleveland as well. SORTA is expected to make a decision on the plan next month. If it approves the plan, the trail could be done by 2017. ©