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Cincinnati CityBeat

Council to Ask City How Green Cincinnati Plan Fits in Norfolk Southern Deal

By Madeline Fening,

A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train, Feb. 6, 2023. After toxic chemicals were released into the air from a wrecked train in Ohio, evacuated residents remain in the dark about what toxic substances are lingering in their vacated neighborhoods while they await approval to return home. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
Just about five weeks before election day, some members of Cincinnati City Council want to know if there's a way to spend a hypothetical cashflow from Norfolk Southern on green infrastructure projects.

On Sept. 26, council's Climate, Environment & Infrastructure committee will vote on a motion to ask the city how elements of the Green Cincinnati Plan will be honored in a potential sale of the
Cincinnati Southern Railway (CSR) to Norfolk Southern.

"The sale of the [CSR] presents an opportunity for the City of Cincinnati to service toward equitable sustainable infrastructure," the motion reads. "The passage of the 2023 Green Cincinnati Plan and the sale of the [CSR] allows us to ensure that Cincinnati's infrastructure aligns with and continues to grow the sustainable initiatives of our city."
[content-1] The motion, which is sponsored by council member Meeka Owens and vice mayor Jan-Michele Kearney,  gives the city 30 days to compile a report on the guidelines around using green infrastructure and climate adaptive elements on existing infrastructure should the Norfolk Southern sale go through.

The sale in a nutshell

City leaders are asking Cincinnati voters to approve a sale of a city-owned multi-state railway, the CSR, to embattled rail giant Norfolk Southern. Under the terms of the agreement, Norfolk Southern would pay Cincinnati $1.6 billion to own the single rail line that runs from Cincinnati to Chattanooga. The funds would be invested in a trust that, according to the estimates of the CSR board, would allow the the city to live off of the interest, potentially paying out double or triple the current lease amount of $25 million annually.

Critics of the potential sale are vocal about selling the nation's only city-owned multi-state railway to the company responsible for the derailment disaster in East Palestine, Ohio.

"They're looking at our [railroad] as something we can just toss out the door instead of sitting down and finding creative solutions to some of our problems," said Abby Friend, an organizer for " Derail the Sale. "
But beyond safety, concern over how the money could be used is another factor council is now probing.

Existing infrastructure

If voters approve the sale, funding from the trust would be used only for the upkeep of existing infrastructure like bridges, parks and recreation facilities.

“This couldn’t be coming at a more important time for our city,” Mayor Aftab Pureval said during the deal's announcement in November 2022. “In just the next five years, we are facing $385 million in unfunded capital needs.” [content-2] Pureval told CityBeat during a sit-down interview in June that the city already spends the proceeds from the lease on infrastructure, but a state law change made it so this sale would remove any flexibility on that spending.

"I don’t trust future mayors or future city council members any more than anyone else does, so in order to safeguard that $1.6 billion, in order to safeguard it from becoming a slush fund for pet projects, we partnered with the state legislature in order for the sale to move forward. In order for voters in Cincinnati to even vote on selling the railroad, we had to get state law changed," Pureval told
CityBeat in June.
Owens and Kearney want the city to lay out in their report how the environmental goals of the Green Cincinnati Plan can continue to grow within the confines of that "existing infrastructure" rule.

At a minimum, council wants the report to address the feasibility of implementing green infrastructure as a part of projects related to storm water server overflow, overland flooding and contaminated stormwater. They ask the report also address the city's goal of achieving 100% renewable energy by 2035, increasing access to safe biking and pedestrian infrastructure, and growth of green spaces, bio-swells and soil swells in parks.
[content-3] The motion is on the agenda for the Sept. 26 meeting, which can be streamed live on
CitiCable .

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