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$500K set aside for trail plan
Project to convert rail lines into pedestrian walkways

COVINGTON - The federal government has appropriated $500,000 for a rails to trails project in Covington aimed at preserving a rail line that could eventually be part of a larger commuter rail to Athens.

Congressman Jim Marshall, D-Ga., helped secure the funding, which was included in the Foreign Operations Appropriations/Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008. The president is expected to sign the act in January.

According to a press release issued by Marshall's office, the money will be used to fund the study, design and appraisal of portions of railway land and its conversion to pedestrian trails, as well as preserving the rail line for a future commuter rail line.

"We were interested in getting that line secured because there's companies around the nation buying up these railroad right of ways. We didn't want a company to come in and buy the thing up," said David Waller, a member of a local nonprofit organization aimed at creating a local network of trails, who helped write the funding application.

Waller and Rob Fowler spoke with state officials last year about the potential for a commuter rail line, and then later Fowler went to Marshall, who showed interest.

Fowler said his dream is a commuter rail line stretching all the way to Athens.

The line runs from Porterdale to Covington on to Starrsville, Mansfield and Newborn and then just north of Monticello, and then intersects with a line that runs to Athens, where it splits the University of Georgia "like a big river," Fowler said.

Portions of the line are still in use, Fowler said.

The line is owned by Norfolk Southern Railway and operated by Great Walton Rail.

Fowler said a commuter line is a long-term dream that would require cooperation from numerous local governments, as well as the state.

For now, "I think our goal is to certainly preserve the line and be sure it doesn't get sold off in little pieces," he said.

Mayor Sam Ramsey said the property is important for another reason: part of it is adjacent to the planned downtown hotel/civic center. A tract that is 35 feet by 206 feet is crucial for parking, he said.

"If we could get that much more land, it certainly would help the hotel in getting the parking they need," he said.

But before anything can be done, Ramsey said an agreement must be reached with the railroad.

"I don't know yet how much right of way that would allow us to buy. We need to sit down with the railroad and discuss that before we know. The immediate thing is if we can get the property needed for the civic center, we will have accomplished a whole lot," he said.

Ramsey thanked Marshall for his assistance in obtaining the funds. Marshall also recently announced that he had helped procure a $100,000 grant for a new homeless shelter in Covington.

"He has been mighty good to Covington this year, and we really appreciate it," Ramsey said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.