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Money for trails, SPLOST would fund railroad purchase

COVINGTON - The bulk of the funding for Newton County's possible purchase of 14 miles of Norfolk Southern Railroad line in Newton County would come from two earmarks secured for trails programs by Congressman Jim Marshall, D-Ga., with additional funding available through the county's special purpose local option sales tax.

The two federal earmarks total $1.1 million, according to Hobby Stripling, district director for Marshall's office in Macon. The first, for $500,000, was designated 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. The second, for $622,250, was designated for purchase of rail line property, Stripling said.

Stripling was at the community meeting at Starrsville United Methodist Church Monday night. He answered some questions for residents and agreed to provide answers in the future to questions he could not answer at the time.

Among those questions was what would happen to the federal earmarks if they are not used for the trails program.

"The funds have to be used for whatever they were earmarked for, or they must be redirected, which would be a request from the receiving entity, in this case the county," Stripling said Thursday from his Macon office. "They could ask that it be redirected, but the project would have to come under the transportation bill."

Stripling said he did not know who would make the final determination on a request for redirection of funding.

The county's local funding comes from the 2005 SPLOST referendum that included a downtown civic center adjacent to the county Administration Building on the project list, according to Newton County Commissioner Mort Ewing. During the process of planning that project, Ewing said it became apparent that in order to build a civic center and hotel complex, the county would need to acquire a portion of the adjacent railroad property.

The non-negotiated purchase price of the 14 miles of railroad in Newton County has been reported at $1.8 million, which leaves the county with a shortfall of about $300,000, according to Commission Chairman Kathy Morgan.

Opponents of the purchase said Monday night that the county should focus on its current financial difficulties rather than purchasing a railroad.

In addition, residents pointed to the costs of rehabilitating and maintaining the railroad if the county were to go through with the plan.

Property owner Fred Greer said costs could run as high as $750,000 per mile to improve the rail line and $16,000 per mile to maintain it, figures he got from a railroad legal expert brought in by the county.

Ewing said that without the federal funding, the railroad issue would be moot.

"If Congressman Marshall had not gotten these earmarks in the two spending bills, it would be a dead issue," Ewing said. "There is no way in the world that the county could even think about buying the railroad and making a trail out of it."

Staff reporter Crystal Tatum contributed to this report.