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City to hold meeting on rails to trails

COVINGTON -- City officials will get more information and discuss their options regarding the purchase of a railroad and its potential conversion to a trail system at an upcoming work session, after lengthy discussion of the issue at their retreat last week.

The council will meet from 5:30 to 8 p.m. April 7 at City Hall for the work session, which is a public meeting but will not be open for public comment.

Earlier this month, the council voted 4-2 not to pursue a grant that would fund construction of a trail system along the right of way of the rail line. At the retreat, several council members agreed they needed more information about the project.

"The railroad is looking to consummate that transaction this year. So the clock is ticking," Mayor Kim Carter said.

City officials agreed to treat the railroad purchase and trail system as separate issues. Depending on the outcome of the rail line discussion, the trails would be discussed later this year.

The county has appropriated a $1.06 million federal grant to purchase the rail line running 14.9 miles through Covington to Starrsville and on to Newborn. The purchase price offered to the county is $1.8 million. The city's financial involvement, if any, has not been decided.

City Manager Steve Horton said the city is in a difficult position because of the county's involvement. City officials need to know the county's position before they can move forward, he said.

"They've got to take the first bite out of the apple," he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall's office is pushing for an answer; Marshall secured the appropriation.

"Obviously, if they do not use the money, we'll try to find something else for it to go toward. It's difficult to get funding from the government. We don't want it to disappear," said Marshall spokesman Doug Moore. "If this is never going to happen, we don't want to put any more resources behind it. This was a project that previously had a lot of backing."

Moore said approximately $200,000 was allocated in 2008 and $800,000 in 2009, meaning those funds must be obligated by 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Moore said if local officials are unsure of whether they will use the funds, they will need to decide by next year, as appropriations begin in early 2011 for fiscal year 2012, beginning Oct. 1.

"If the county and city decide they don't want to do anything with this project, that's their prerogative. They asked for it in the past. We were able to secure the funding for it.

There are other projects that are good projects, and we'll try to move these funds to those projects. Otherwise, the money will go away, and the 8th District has a lot of needs," Moore said.

There is division on the council as to whether to support the railroad purchase and potential conversion to a trail system.

"The people pulling my coattails about the trails are very wealthy people. The people trying to make a living are worried about day-to-day expenses," Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams said.

But Carter said people in need of more transportation options would benefit. Councilman Mike Whatley said the project would bring in revenues and create jobs.

Williams had previously stated that she voted no on pursuing the grant, which would have required a local match of more than $200,000, due to concern for residents who attended the council meeting to plead for help with utility bills.

But Carter noted the two are separate issues, adding that the rails to trails project has been in the comprehensive plan adopted by the city, county and other entities, for years. The money appropriated can be used only for that purpose, she said.

"Just because we vote no on not spending the money doesn't mean that money's going to be taken and we're going to throw that at the community for their utility bills. It's not going to make the utility bills get any better," said Whatley. "If we vote no because we think we are helping our constituents by holding that money, we're misleading ourselves and our constituents."

County Commission Chairman Kathy Morgan has said she does not have a consensus from commissioners to move forward on negotiations with the railroad. But, commissioners have asked the county attorney to research whether the property could be purchased with the grant money and left as greenspace, she said.

Newborn officials are considering drafting a letter to the county in support of the railroad purchase.

"We would like to see something done with it. We're at the end of it, and we feel if it was done, we would have more business, and more people coming through town," said Mayor Roger Sheridan.

The town might create a park at the rail line's terminus, Sheridan said. Newborn officials are expected to discuss the issue at an upcoming town council meeting. If they agree to draft a letter, Sheridan said he may ask other local mayors to do the same.