Three groups have emerged opposing the sale of Cincinnati’s city-owned railroad, all of them efforts by citizens who want their voices to be heard.
Those leaders admit they’ll never have the same deep pockets of the group championing the sale − the proposed buyer, Norfolk Southern Corp. So don’t expect to see commercials or even mailers from the opposition, while the campaign to sell, called Building Cincinnati’s Future, is already airing commercials and mailing flyers.
Opposition leaders say they’ll hold press conferences, knock on doors, and use social media to spread their message.
The Cincinnati Southern Railway Board is asking voters in November to approve the sale of the 143-year-old city-owned railroad, a deal Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval and city council members say is a better deal for citizens than leasing it ever has been.
The plan is for the Cincinnati Southern Railway Board to sell the railroad for $1.6 billion and then use the proceeds to create a trust with the money. Investment proceeds from the trust would then be given to the city to spend on current infrastructure projects. The board estimates those investment proceeds could be anywhere from $50 to $70 million a year, at least double what the current railroad lease brings in every year, which is currently $25 million a year.
The group’s arguments against the sale overlap with each other. They’re concerned about transparency, that the price the city is getting is too little, that investment returns won’t live up to projections, how the money would be spent and about who the buyer is. Under the current lease only Norfolk Southern, which leases the rail line now, has the option to purchase the asset.
There’s one pro-sale campaign group, Building Cincinnati’s Future. The group promises the sale money will pay to fix roads and sidewalks and ensure clean water, all without raising taxes.
Who’s who when it comes to selling:
Groups against the sale
SAVE OUR RAIL
Stance: The group Save Our Rail believes the railroad board and sale supporters are spreading “disinformation” about the substance of the sale and are concerned because the board has hired lobbyists and a marketing expert. They believe the railroad is a “great” asset for the city that will only grow in value so it should not be sold now.
Quote: “People opposed to the sale are a grassroots confederation of progressives, conservatives, and civic-minded Cincinnatians who, for a variety of reasons recognized the need to come together to combat the disinformation and who are worried that this asset that has been a great value to the city for almost 150 years will be squandered,” said group member Kevin Flynn, a former Cincinnati City Councilman and lawyer.
Who’s involved: Flynn; entrepreneur Adam Koehler, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2021; social justice advocate (and 98 Degrees band member) Justin Jeffre; West Side activist Pete Witte; real estate agent and Democratic activist Shawn Baker.
Funding: Some from members.
Formed a political action committee: Yes, from group members.
CITIZENS FOR A TRANSPARENT RAILROAD VOTE
Stance: Citizens for a Transparent Railroad Vote was created because of what organizers saw as widespread dissatisfaction with the lack of information coming from city leaders about the proposed sale. “A Political Action Committee based in Columbus, presumably well-funded by Norfolk Southern, and with reported close ties to Mayor Pureval, is spending money on glossy mailers and TV ads. To us, that is unsatisfactory,” said founder Todd Zinser, a retired United States inspector general. The group has recommended the city host a series of public hearings and create an interactive website dedicated to the sale where voters can examine documents related to the sale and ask questions.
Quote: “There are numerous questions and red flags about the proposal that need to be addressed, beginning with this lack of transparency,” Zinser said. “Our intention is to succeed in getting our city leaders and the railway board of trustees to come out from under their cone of silence and make a proper effort to present the proposed sale to the voters consistent with our recommendations. Otherwise, the only prudent thing to do is vote no.”
Who’s behind it: Zinser, a West Price Hill resident. Zinser retired as the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Commerce after 31 years of conducting audits and investigations of federal officials, programs, and operations. He remains a certified fraud examiner.
Formed a political action committee: Yes.
Funding: Minimal, Zinser said.
DERAIL THE SALE
Stance: Derail the Sale group leader Abby Friend said members are concerned the buyer is Norfolk Southern, the rail company at fault for the toxic chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, in February. The group does not believe the rail board and city are being transparent with numbers.
Quote: “We feel that we shouldn’t sell the railroad and voters should vote no because of generational value,” Friend said. “Our future generations deserve to have the same access to this public infrastructure. We would lose our seat at the table as a municipality” around the conversation of rail in America. “This is a bad real estate deal.”
Who’s behind it: Organizer Abby Friend, who lives in Northside. At the group’s first meeting, Democratic activist Michelle Dillingham presented information about why she believes the sale is a bad idea. The meeting drew 40 people.
Formed a political action committee: No.
Facebook: Derail the Sale
Group for the sale
Building Cincinnati’s Future
Stance: Building Cincinnati’s Future Campaign Committee is a coalition of businesses and community groups committed to educating Cincinnati’s voters on the benefits of the proposed sale of the Cincinnati Southern Railway to Norfolk Southern. It argues the city is facing a backlog of necessary maintenance to Cincinnati’s infrastructure that will cost $400 million to complete. Committee leaders say they are providing voters with accurate information about how the sale offers the city the chance to bridge this gap now and in years to come.
Quote: The group’s mantra has been a yes on 22 “is a vote to repair streets and sidewalks and improve city emergency services while creating thousands of jobs – all without raising taxes for the city’s capital improvements.”
Who’s behind it: Norfolk Southern. It hired Jens Sutmoeller, an experienced Cincinnati political campaigner, to run the political action committee. It has garnered endorsements by Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval, the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council, U.S. Rep. Greg Landsman and the editorial board of The Enquirer.
Formed a political action committee: Yes.
Funding: Yes. A memo from Cincinnati Southern Railway Board President Paul Muething written Aug. 23, 2022, referenced the campaign and the fact that Norfolk Southern would pay for it. The memo said at least $1 million was likely to be spent.