Officials still in talks with railroad

Photo by Daniel Kemp

Photo by Daniel Kemp

Local officials are still in talks with Norfolk Southern regarding the purchase of its rail line. A March 31 deadline given by the railroad has been extended, according to Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan.

Morgan said that she, along with Covington Mayor Kim Carter and Newborn Mayor Roger Sheridan, recently met with a representative of Norfolk Southern.

"We need facts and we asked questions and they are going to go back and provide the answers to those questions. Once we get the facts, I'm sure all the entities involved will review them with their councils and boards to make an informed decision," Morgan said.

The deadline for a decision has been extended at least until the end of April, she said.

Carter reported in February that Norfolk Southern sent her an email setting a deadline of March 31 for local officials to make a commitment. Norfolk Southern first offered the rail line two years ago. Carter said for $1,000 earnest money, the railroad offered to provide all information required. However, Morgan said Friday that no money has been put up in exchange for information.

The Covington City Council voted a year ago not to pursue purchase of the rail line, but after Carter received the email, they agreed discussions could take place to get more information.

"We are moving ahead with gathering more facts. The Newton County government is the lead entity at this point," Carter said. "Norfolk Southern has been extremely flexible and cooperative, and we'll be working with them further over the next month."

The rail line is approximately 15 miles, running from Covington to just outside Newborn. About two-thirds lies in unincorporated Newton County.

The town of Newborn sent a letter of intent to Norfolk Southern in March stating "our strong interest in purchasing the railroad right of way."

When previously asked if the town itself or the group of municipalities and private foundation it has partnered with in support of the project can afford the purchase, Sheridan responded, "We're not to that point yet. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

The railroad initially offered a purchase price of $1.8 million. Two grants totaling more than $1 million were awarded to the county from the federal government for purchase of the rail line; one of those was earmarked for conversion of the rails to a multi-use trail.

Carter has said use of the property could be determined in the future. A multi-use trail is only one possible use. Officials are now saying the property could be valuable by saving local government money when it comes time to purchase right of way for water lines running to Bear Creek Reservoir and controlling easements needed for utility purposes.

The purchase of the rail line has been hotly disputed in the community. Advocates say a trail would provide needed recreation and draw tourists. Even if a trail is not constructed, it's better to have the property in the hands of the public versus a private entity, they argue.

Opponents say the county can't afford to maintain a trail, which they believe will increase crime, and that the project is unnecessary in these economic times.