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Railroad purchase considered

COVINGTON - Newton County and city of Covington officials are considering purchasing a portion of the Norfolk Southern railroad.

The city and county held a joint work session Tuesday afternoon at the Newton County Administration Building to learn more about the process, as well as the benefits and risks, of railroad acquisition.

Initially, officials wanted about half an acre of railroad property behind the proposed downtown civic center, a project that is now on hold due to the economy.

Representatives with Norfolk Southern Railway said they were willing to sell more of the line, a 14-mile stretch running from Ga. Highway 81 in Porterdale, through Covington and on to Rose Acres between Mansfield and Newborn.

"They are willing to negotiate with us. They are interested in potentially abandoning the line," Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Kathy Morgan said.

Only one customer currently uses the railroad for freight transport, an egg hatchery in Newborn.

What the railroad could be used for in the future is still up in the air.

Covington Mayor Kim Carter said city officials are interested in using the 2-mile portion within city limits for walking and biking trails.

But Morgan said her sights are set on the potential for economic development and mass transportation the rail line could provide.

"I'm not interested in putting trails out in the county at this point. I can't control it, I can't secure it, I can't maintain it at this point," she said.

But the railroad could be important to attracting industries that need rail service, or to serve existing industries that may need it in the future, she said. Also, it could be used for mass transportation, not necessarily a commuter rail, but perhaps a trolley system within the local community, she said.

The county has an interest in controlling the future use and operation of the railroad, Morgan said.

"If they abandon it and somebody else picks it up, we will have no voice, no say," she said.

The county has solicited outside legal counsel from Karl Morell, who has specialized in railroad acquisition and regulation for more than 30 years. At Tuesday's meeting, Morell outlined various options available to the city and county.

Those options include purchasing the railroad just as if acquiring a business, which would mean the county would become a railroad and could operate the rail system.

Another option would be to purchase it following abandonment by Norfolk Southern and hire a third party as a shortline operator.

Norfolk Southern has given a $1.8 million purchase price, but Morgan said that is negotiable.

The county and city already have about $1.1 million in appropriated federal money as well as $500,000 in special purpose local option sales tax revenues designated for the acquisition.

Morgan said that would leave the county to come up with an additional $300,000, assuming the purchase price is $1.8 million.

"When looking at the value of what you're getting, that is not a bad purchase," she said. "We can't dismiss this because we think we might have to spend $300,000. But I also think we should not jump into this because we only have to spend $300,000."

Some commissioners said Tuesday they couldn't support spending that much money with the budget shortfall for next year now topping $8 million.

"I don't see the money, where it's coming from ... We're looking at possibly cutting services and maybe possibly laying off people," District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson said.

District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming agreed, saying that the commission must also consider the cost of future maintenance.

"We need to look at other ways to help citizens. It's worrisome to me that we're even looking at this right now," he said.

For a small contingent of citizens who own property along the railroad, there's more to consider than money.

Freddie Greer, who lives in the Hayston community off Ga. Highway 213, said he is already plagued by people trespassing and stealing.

"There's nothing for us to gain but more problems," he said.

Mary Jane Dixon, another property owner, said she's disappointed the county has not provided residents with more information up until this point, noting that many found out about the work session via a cable announcement that listed the topic only as "land acquisition."

"I'm totally opposed to it. I'm not against the idea of trails, but this is not the location or time for this," she said.

Covington resident Jerry Bouchillon said the county has more pressing concerns with the road network.

"If you've got spare dollars, I think it ought to be going for road improvements. There are some great benefits here, but those benefits are going to have a cost," he said.

Morgan stressed that Tuesday's meeting was for information purposes only. She said she is encouraging the board not to take action until more research can be done.

"I understand and totally agree with all of (the residents') reservations about trails going through their property ... but the value of a railroad and a rail line and the impact to our community of closing that rail line that goes through two-thirds of Newton County, what that could potentially do to economic development in the future, to me is a huge consideration that we as leaders and planners need to make," she said.

Morgan also pointed out that land acquisition is usually discussed in executive session, which is closed to the public, but because there was so much interest in the railroad purchase, the work session was open. She added that she will solicit additional input from residents living along the rail line.

Whatever happens, District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said the county needs to investigate whether the federal money, obtained with the help of U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Macon, can be used for another project.

"If we return that to the federal government what will Mr. Marshall do when we request more money in the future?" she said.

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