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Meeting held on rail line

COVINGTON -- An informational meeting held Thursday about the potential acquisition of 15 miles of rail line left many in attendance wanting more information.

Mayor Kim Carter opened the meeting in the council chambers by reminding the public this was an informational meeting and no official action would be taken.

"We're here to hear information and to get facts," Carter said.

At issue is 14.9 miles of Norfolk Southern rail line that runs through Covington to Starrsville and on to Newborn. The railroad has offered to sell that portion of its line to Newton County for $1.8 million, although Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Kathy Morgan has said that price could be negotiated. The county has a federal grant of

$1.06 million to apply toward the purchase.

According to Randy Conner, financial coordinator with the city of Covington, about 35 percent of the rail line lies within the city limits.

Thursday's meeting was held even though the City Council voted on April 19 not to pursue the purchase of the rail line. Councilman Keith Dalton said at that time, "I don't want to pursue it with the current economic conditions. I'd like for us to back off and not be in the railroad purchasing business."

Carter, however, was not pleased with the council's 5 to 1 vote, and said she would still hold the previously scheduled informational meeting on the rail corridor.

"Opportunity often presents itself at less-than-ideal times and we can't predict when opportunity will come up," the mayor said Thursday. "It's our duty to get all the information."

Before Conner made his presentation, he offered an apology to the City Council for not communicating more openly about the Rails to Trails grant.

"I didn't realize what a volatile subject it would be," he said. "It created misunderstanding in the council and it's my fault and it's what got us here this evening."

Conner's presentation began with the history of the rail line. He then said that it is his understanding that Norfolk Southern owns the railroad under a fee-simple title, which would be conferred to the new owner upon sale of the property. He said the railroad is considering selling the line because "the line no longer fits in its long-term plans."

"It is my understanding the city has the first right of refusal," Conner said.

He then explained the various ways the city could use the corridor if they acquire it. He said the city could opt to leave the land dormant; it could be preserved as greenspace; the city could convert the property to walking/bicycle trails; or it could create golf cart thoroughfares.

Former city attorney Jerry Bouchillon clarified that the Rails to Trails grants are controlled by the federal government and explicitly state that the purpose is to preserve the land for future transportation uses. He said the city cannot do anything on that land that would prohibit another rail line from going in there.

One benefit of owning the corridor, Conner said, is lease revenue from telecommunications lines that run across the property.

"Whoever buys the corridor, it is my understanding that income transfers to the purchaser," he said.

He said he did not know how much that income would be, but heard it was "substantial," and guessed it could be as much as "six figures." Conner said Norfolk Southern would not provide more detailed information until they receive a letter of interest from the city.

"We don't know," he said. "I mean, this could be an immediate income benefit to the city and the county, but again, I don't know. ... The rail corridor could pay for itself."

Members of the public gathered in the council chambers questioned why a letter of interest had not been sent to Norfolk Southern so that this information would be available.

"It just hasn't happened," Conner said. "It's been on the drawing board a long time, and we're just at a point that we've pulled up all the facts."

Even though all the City Council members attended Thursday's meeting, they would not entertain suggestions at that time to vote on submitting a letter of interest to Norfolk Southern, but the issue may be brought up at a future regular City Council meeting.

Conner outlined various ways the city could pay for the acquisition of the corridor, including using special purpose local option sales tax revenue earmarked for a proposed civic center. The stated purchase price for the land is $1.8 million, but that figure is not firm, he said.

Carter pointed out that the price "wouldn't be higher than $1.8 million," and would amount to about an additional $2.20 per resident.

Upon purchase of the land, Conner said environmental studies would likely need to be conducted to check for contaminants. Then the rail lines and railroad ties would have to be removed and the beds improved. He said the most economical solution would be "cap and surface," which involves removing the hardware and tapping down the surface.

He introduced Joe Hattrup, chief operating officer with Iron Horse Preservation Society, who drove from New Hampshire to attend Thursday's meeting. Hattrup said his organization, a nonprofit that converts abandoned railroad tracks into usable recreational trails, would remove the rails, crush down the beds and repair the 33 road crossings. He said Iron Horse is compensated through salvaging the hardware.

"We will not owe them any money," Conner said.

Staff Reporter Crystal Tatum contributed to this article.