Council members explain rail vote

Photo by Heather Meadows

Photo by Heather Meadows

Norfolk Southern's asking price for the portion of its rail line within Covington city limits is $1.2 million, more than some council members are willing to pay.

That does not include $500,000 in SPLOST 2005 dollars already set aside for acquisition of a small parcel near the proposed site of the downtown civic center, which would bring the total cost to purchase the rail line that runs through the city to $1.7 million.

The City Council voted 4 to 2 in closed session Monday night not to send a letter of intent to purchase to the railroad. Council members Chris Smith, Keith Dalton, Ocie Franklin and Hawnethia Williams were opposed to sending the letter, with Janet Goodman and Mike Whatley in favor.

"There was a lot of discussion about it, and I am adamantly against spending that kind of money for it," Smith said, noting that less than 5 miles of the rail line are located within the city. He added that he was open to considering the purchase if it could save the city money in the long run, but, "Once I saw the price, that's not a fair deal."

Norfolk Southern had originally given a sale price of $1.8 million for the entire stretch of approximately 15 miles of rail line running from Covington on to Porterdale to just outside Newborn. About two-thirds of the property is in unincorporated Newton County.

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.

Smith said he was also concerned that there was nothing in writing stating that the earmark to the county could be transferred to the city.

"I don't have any regrets about what I did. I think it was the right thing," he said.

Dalton said there has been talk that the city could benefit from owning the property because it wouldn't have to purchase those easements for utilities in the future. But the cost outweighed the benefits in his mind.

At $27,000 an acre, "It's just ridiculous in these times. I don't think there's a private person or business, not anyone, who's going to come out and buy this rail, not with economic times like they are," he said, adding that in some spots, the right-of-way is only 9 feet wide, making it of little use to anyone else. "I'm not saying it might not be beneficial to the city at some point, but right now, no."

The purchase cost would cover the expense of removing the tracks but not the cross ties. Dalton said no environmental studies have been done on the property for contaminants like arsenic or asbestos, and it's not clear who would be responsible for that or how much it would cost.

"If we're going to spend that kind of money, why not get sidewalks so people can actually move from their houses to the store to get necessities?" he said. "I am not against trails. There is a lot of stuff I'm not against, but I don't think we should take other people's money to pay for it."

The council voted more than a year ago not to pursue purchase of the rail line. At a working retreat earlier this year, Mayor Kim Carter asked the council for authorization to enter into discussions with the railroad to get more information after Norfolk Southern sent her an email giving a 30-day deadline to commit to the purchase. Officials authorized the city's legal team to handle those discussions instead, but the mayor participated despite the council's instructions, Dalton said. Now, for the second time, the council has voted not to pursue the purchase.

"I've voted no on it so many times I've lost count. For me, in my mind, it's almost becoming a conflict of interest for her to be the one driving this thing because her husband is the president of (Newton Trails, an organization that has partnered with local municipalities to support the purchase)," he said.

Carter declined to comment on the council's recent decision.

Councilwoman Janet Goodman said her position on the issue has never changed.

"All I've got to say is I've always been in favor of it. My decision has not changed because I know it would be an asset to Covington," she said. Goodman said she isn't sure if the issue is dead or if it may come up again in the future.

Other council members did not return calls seeking comment.