Cincinnati Railway Co., the parent company of the Lebanon Mason & Monroe Railroad, had said the train could move to Mason or Canal Winchester, about 15 miles south of Columbus, if no agreement is reached with the city of Lebanon. The train operates on five miles of track owned by Lebanon.
City council voted 4-3 in favor of the contract at its Tuesday meeting at the Lebanon City Building.
To pass, the contract needed five of seven votes. Because council did not obtain the required five votes, Tuesday’s action is considered a first reading and council will vote again to approve the deal at a Jan. 2 work session.
If the contract receives five votes at the Jan. 2 meeting, it will go into effect immediately. If it receives four votes, the contract will go into effect 30 days after passage.
Under the proposal, the city would continue funding track maintenance for two years. The train would pay the city $3,000 per year to lease the track, down from the $5,250 it had been paying previously, and would also pay the city a fee of $0.50 per ticketed rider.
LM&M had requested a reduction in its annual fee because it now has to pay about $8,000 per year for inspections required by the Federal Railroad Administration that it had previously been receiving for free.
Last year, the city said it collected $9,620 on 19,241 tickets sold. Lebanon City Manager Pat Clements said that doesn’t include any tickets sold during the “Day Out with Thomas” event. That means last year the railroad paid almost $15,000 in fees to the city.
Council members are divided whether the 40,000 riders and economic dollars the train brings to the city each year are worth the approximately $200,000 the city pays each year to maintain the line, including five bridges.
The city, facing declining state revenue, could use the $200,000 for road work. The city’s road maintenance program is underfunded by $1 million to $1.5 million annually, said Clements.
“We’re leasing for $3,000 tracks that are costing us about $200,000 to maintain. How do we justify that?,” said Councilman Jeff Monroe, who owns a downtown business. “If this was something we could get close to breaking even on, but we can’t.”
Other council members pointed to statistics provided by the Warren County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, which estimates 10 percent of the train’s 40,000 riders — 95 percent of whom coming from outside Lebanon — stay overnight in a hotel.
The bureau calculated the railroad’s economic impact to be an estimated $1.8 million, although WCCVB President and CEO Phillip Smith acknowledged this is without the benefit of a formal third-party economic impact study.
“If your core downtown isn’t viable, the rest of your city is going to die,” said Councilman Matt Rodriguez. “The train keeps businesses functional. It’s going to keep our taxes even.“
Although the contract is set to expire on Dec. 31, Brian Collins, CEO of Cincinnati Railway Co., said he is willing to give the city time to approve the deal. The train normally does not operate January through March, he said.
“I’m going on their good faith that they will make it effective sometime in January,” said Collins. “We will not be making any rash plans just because they did not meet that exact deadline.”
The train has operated as the Lebanon Mason & Monroe Railroad since 2006. It travels along the Cincinnati, Lebanon & Northern Railroad right-of-way, a freight and passenger line that opened in 1881. The train starts in downtown Lebanon and offers scenic rides through Southwestern Ohio.
Collins said the train will stay in Lebanon as long as there are the votes to pass the contract. He said there was overwhelming support from business owners and others in Lebanon.
IF YOU GO:
What: Lebanon City Council work session to vote on contract for Lebanon Mason & Monroe Railroad
When: 7 p.m Wednesday, Jan. 2
Where: Lebanon City Building, 50 S. Broadway St.