This story was originally published on The Drive .
American history has been filled with grandiose public work projects. Some of these are successful, such as interstate highways. Others, less so, include that proposed to nuke a road through California’s mountains . Some ended up in purgatory, partially completed with millions of dollars spent and many additional required to complete. The subway in Cincinnati, Ohio is one such example. At more than two miles long, it could be considered the longest unutilized subway system . Even though it has been more than 100 years since its construction, there is still hope that it will one day be in service.
The Cincinnati subway’s roots can, according to the city’s official website, be traced back to March 1912, when officials appointed a board to set up a rapid transit network in the city. Its members hired a Chicago transit planner, who submitted a 16-mile city loop with an estimated cost of $12 million, later revised to $6 million (equivalent to $152 million today). Come 1916, an “overwhelming vote of almost six to one” approved the proposal, which was to run along a combination of subterranean, ground-level, and elevated tracks along the loop shown below.
Construction wouldn’t start until after World War I. Inflation had already reduced the purchasing power of the $6 million allocated for the project. That cash could now only fund 11 of the network’s planned 16 miles of tracks. Negotiations with local municipalities stalled the project for over a year. Still, two miles of subway tunnels were complete by 1923, and in 1927, much of the aboveground infrastructure was too.
But the subway was still not open. The subway was still far from opening. There were important connections missing, no tracks had been laid and, worst of all, not enough money to fix either. The transit board attributed inflation for its budget issues and estimated finishing the network would cost another $9 to $10 million (adjusted for inflation, about double the original cost). This was untenable to the newly elected Mayor Murray Seasongood, who in 1928 dissolved the transit board, and instead opened Central Parkway over top of the transit system’s right-of-way. Today, the road is a major thoroughfare through the city, but its surroundings are hardly what planners a century ago imagined the subway would’ve turned them into–local media criticizes the Parkway area as “drab.”
But 1928 wasn’t the end of the line for Cincinnati’s subway, which has over the 93 years since its cancellation been the subject of countless proposals from the public and private sectors alike. While some have encouraged Cincinnati to continue with its original transit plans, others recommend that the network’s remnants be repurposed .
In 1936, the Cincinnati Engineers Club called for routing the city’s trolleys through the subway tunnels. However, the streetcars were too slow to turn the tunnels’ corners. In 1939, City Manager C.O. Sherrill suggested that the tunnels be extended to the riverfront to allow them to become a parking lot. But money was still an object.
After World War II ended, ideas started to come back. It began with a local company trying to connect the railroads with the businesses along the route. The five-year lease was secured for the subway tunnels. However, freight cars couldn’t fit in the tunnels like streetcars. Later on, in the 1960s, plans emerged to convert the tunnels into a government fallout shelter, and in 1969, the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio asked if it could hold a 500-person candlelight communion in the catacombs. However, they couldn’t obtain insurance for the event.
Since then, a winery has suggested turning the tunnels into a wine cellar, and locals have campaigned to make the tunnels an Atlanta-like nightlife destination, suggesting in 1974 that retail outlets and a nightclub could fill the empty space. In 1977, in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo, a multi-state transit committee advocated for putting the tunnels to their originally intended use. Evidently, none of these suggestions went anywhere.
“We’ve had people approach us about using the tunnel for everything from grain malting, to a water