City to form railroad committee

COVINGTON - Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” and it seems talks regarding the Norfolk Southern rail line purchase haven’t yet ended, despite multiple attempts by some Covington City Council members to squash the matter altogether.

Though the council has voted three times not to pursue discussions with Norfolk Southern, Monday night a majority of the council reversed course and agreed to form a "fact-finding" committee to obtain more information about the purchase at the request of Mayor Kim Carter. The vote was 4 to 2, with Keith Dalton and Chris Smith opposed. Initially, Smith made a motion to delay the talk until 2012, as had previously been decided by the council, but that motion failed.

"I'm real disappointed in this council," Smith said. "We've voted three times not to talk about or discuss this until after this year was done and once again, people rode the fence and jumped off the wagon and I'm very disappointed this has happened."

Mike Whatley, Hawnethia Williams and Ocie Franklin have all previously voted not to bring up the matter again until at least 2012, when the new mayor takes office.

"I'd like to say I've never jumped off the wagon because I was never on that wagon," Councilwoman Janet Goodman said. "I've been for it the whole time and I've never changed."

Carter chimed in that, "This is about finding out more information; it's not about taking action."

"This is about not letting it go," Smith responded.

"Excuse me, I'm not finished," Carter said. "This is about finding out information. There are a lot of legal concerns, transportation concerns, DOT concerns. I think that was the idea behind the committee, because I don't think any one person could adequately absorb all that or do all the heavy lifting to find out those facts."

Dalton said the rail line purchase is the only issue continually revisited by the council, calling it "the mayor's pet project."

Carter said the project is in the strategic plan unanimously adopted by the council.

"I'm just trying to follow the strategic plan," she said.

The committee will be comprised of two council members one from the east and one from the west wards; City Manager Steve Horton and any city staff he deems appropriate; a member of the city's legal team; Mayor-elect Ronnie Johnston and Carter.

Carter said some council members asked that the item be placed on the agenda again.

Williams said she may have been hasty in her previous votes and now was ready to listen.

"I think in hindsight listening to something does not necessarily mean commitment one way or another," she said.

Franklin noted she missed the most recent meeting in August when the council voted down further talks with the railroad.

"We're free to have our own views…This thing is not personal," she said. "To say you're disappointed in this whole council, I really disagree with that. I'm disappointed in that because I feel like I have a right to make my own decisions. I have my own agenda."

Horton said all meetings of committees formed by the council will be open to the public.

A multi-use trail is one option that has been discussed for the rail corridor. Some officials say the property, which runs about 15 miles total and 5 miles within city limits, is needed to save the local government money when purchasing easements for utility relocations and for water pipe installation when Bear Creek Reservoir comes online.

Those opposed have said the total cost of maintaining the corridor is unknown and the project is too costly to undertake in such dire economic times. A federal earmark of more than $1 million is available to purchase the rail line. Carter said the earmark, previously assigned to the county, is now in the city's name. The last publicly disclosed price for the portion of the rail line running through city limits - about 5 miles - was about $1.2 million.