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Funding gap puts future of Lebanon Mason & Monroe Railroad in doubt

Published: Aug. 24, 2021 at 9:29 PM EDT
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WARREN COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - Bridge repairs and infrastructure needs threaten to derail one of Greater Cincinnati’s favorite train trips.

The Lebanon Mason & Monroe Railroad has operated passenger rail in Warren County for at least 33 years.

It’s an economic development engine as well. LM&M cites a study saying the railroad has a $3.6 million impact on the city, which nets $0.75 per ticket sold.

Ninety-five percent of the railroad’s 40,000 annual riders are from outside Lebanon.

“We hear the train whistle, we call that ‘the money train,’” said Gail Rose with the Warren County Historical Society. “And we mean it.”

Anderson Township resident Dr. Bryan Osterday explains the historic railroad is a “very big deal” for the special needs community as well.

“The magic and the wonder in those eyes is incredible,” he said. “The special needs community, the parents will do anything for those children.”

But the future of the railroad is uncertain, according to both parties involved in negotiating its new operating agreement.

The line has been funded by the City of Lebanon since 1985, according to City Manager Scott Brunka.

The current operating agreement with the city, however, expires on Jan. 1, 2023.

The nonprofit that operates the line, the Cincinnati Scenic Railway, and the City of Lebanon are in discussions on a new operating agreement, but funding for the rail bridge replacements has already proved a sticking point.

The rail bridges need to be replaced in the next 10 years at a cost of around $2.5 million, according to Brunka.

A spokesperson for the LM&M Railroad says they are “aggressively pursuing” grant opportunities as well as potential freight transload business to help defray the costs of track repairs. (The tracks on which LM&M runs carries freight traffic, though LM&M currently has right of way priority.)

“If funding is not obtained to maintain track and infrastructure, the operating contract will not be renewed and 2022 will be the final year for the LM&M Railroad,” the spokesperson said. “The loss, both economic and social, to the City of Lebanon would be significant.”

Brunka characterized discussions on the new operating agreement as “very early” and said no decisions have been made.

“We realize that there is a significant cost to maintaining the railroad,” Rose said. “But we believe that the positive economic impact that our businesses enjoy from the train, plus the additional expenses of decommissioning tracks, makes maintaining the train a sound investment in Lebanon’s future—as well as the right thing to do.”

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