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Posted: March 10, 2010 12:30 a.m.

County’s mayors discuss railroad at bi-monthly meeting

Newborn, Mansfield mayors say their cities support purchase

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RR abandonment

Though Newton County residents are split on their opinions toward purchasing the Norfolk Southern railroad, the mayors of Newborn and Mansfield appear to be in support of the idea and said Friday they’d like to see the rails converted to trails in their small cities.

The future of the railroad was a popular topic at Friday’s bi-monthly meeting of the six mayors of Newton County. Mansfield Mayor Bill Cocchi began the meeting by telling Covington Mayor Kim Carter that he was disappointed by the Covington council’s March 1 vote to not pursue a trail grant.

Carter said she felt the city should have at least applied to receive the federal transportation grant, because even if the city was awarded the grant, it could have declined to use the money.

The grant would have provided Covington with money to convert some of the Norfolk Southern railroad into trails in the city — if the railroad was ever purchased. The grant would have been $496,364, but would have required an additional local match of $224,870; $170,000 of the match could have been in-kind services.

Council members Keith Dalton, Ocie Franklin, Chris Smith and Hawnethia Williams all voted not to pursue the grant.

Carter said she remained supportive of the railroad purchase, but she said the city needs to gather and present all of the facts to the public.

"We need to do a better job of informing the council and residents about the history of the project, and all of the documents and plans we have that support the railroad purchase," she said.

Cocchi said the land underneath the railroad was prime real estate. Norfolk Southern wrote Carter a letter on Feb. 3 that informed her that the railroad was in the process of being abandoned.

The letter states that according to federal law, Norfolk Southern is required to consult with local cities and planning agencies to see whether the abandonment coincides with agencies’ future land use plans.

In her Feb. 25 response, Carter said the abandonment was expected, according to many of the city’s plans.

"Covington continues to improve our downtown development and the ability to create a pedestrian corridor on the rail bed would appreciably advance the downtown revitalization efforts," she wrote in her response.

"As you can see from the amount of discussion and planning pertaining to the rail line over the past 12 years, the city of Covington has been preparing for the advent of such an abandonment and would like very much to ensure that the rail line corridor be maintained for use as a greenway trail," she ended the letter. To see the original versions of both letters visit covnews.com.

Newborn Mayor Roger Sheridan said he would love to see the railroad converted to a trail in Newborn.

"A majority of people in Newborn would love it. If we can help, let us know," he said to Carter.

Carter said that regardless of the future use of the railroad, it represents a great real estate investment. Other city and county leaders have also made this point and said that the corridor connecting four of the county’s cities should be preserved, regardless of use.

Opinions among supporters are mixed about whether it should be converted into a mixed-use pedestrian pathway or remain as is, for possible future mass public transportation.

Opposition is centered around cost to purchase the railroad, most of which would be paid for by grants, and the future cost to maintain it, as well as the hesitancy to take on any legal liability. Increased crime and property values have also been raised as concerns; supporters say studies don’t support these last two claims.

The 12-mile portion of the Norfolk Southern railroad running between Porterdale and Newborn is currently dormant; the last publicly discussed price was $1.8 million. The county has a little more than $1 million in federal appropriation money available to purchase the railroad.

Carter said another public meeting might be a good idea.

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