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Posted: May 9, 2010 12:00 a.m.

Newborn sends letter of interest to railroad co.

Newborn officials are determined to get all the facts about the Norfolk Southern rail line, no matter what Covington or Newton County officials do.

On May 3, the Newborn Town Council approved sending a letter of interest to Steven G. Portnell with Norfolk Sothern’s real estate department.

“As we are at the Eastern Terminus of this proposed abandonment, we are very interested in the possibility of the right of way being purchased and converted into a biking/hiking trail,” the letter states.

The letter goes on to ask for a meeting between Norfolk Southern and Newborn officials, but specifies that Newborn is only interested in the project; it does not promise any further action.

Letter of Interest
The topic of sending a letter of interest was vigorously discussed during the April 29 informational meeting, hosted by Randy Conner, Covington’s grant writer. During the meeting, Conner said the city and county could not get all the details they needed about the railroad without a letter of interest.

The two most important issues are the exact cost to purchase the railroad, and how much revenue the railroad receives through the leases signed by the telecommunications companies whose wires cross the rail line.

“The Covington council voted against the railroad. The commissioners have not voted for it. So we decided, we’re at the end of the railroad, we’d write the letter,” Sheridan said Friday.

He said the town also wrote a letter to U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Macon), who originally appropriated much of the more than $1 million that Newton County could use to purchase the railroad.

Whether a letter of interest will be enough to get access to the information sought is yet to be determined. Following the April 29 meeting, Chairman Kathy Morgan told The Covington News that in her meetings with Norfolk Southern, she had always understood that the company required a letter of intent. A letter of intent would imply that the county intended to purchase the railroad, and could require the county to give some compensation if it backed out of negotiations.

The News contacted two officials in Norfolk Southern's real estate department, but neither could provide information about which kind of letter was needed and what it would have to entail.

Morgan said she would ask Norfolk Southern for clarification about the letter, but only after the budget was created, sometime in June or July.

Potential Newborn Purchase?
In a Friday phone interview, Conner said it was his understanding that the federal money from Marshall could be reappropriated to Newborn or any other municipality. He said it's possible that the money could even be transferred to a non-profit.

Sheridan previously said that Newborn did not have any money to contribute to the project, but that was assuming Covington or Newton County wanted to make the purchase.

Continued Opposition
However, there remains many elected officials and residents who are simply opposed to any further study of a potential railroad purchase. On Thursday evening, retired local attorney Jerry Bouchillon sent a 1,400 word e-mail to Morgan, Mayor Kim Carter and both local newspapers.

Bouchillon said he felt the April 29 informational meeting was biased in favor of the railroad purchase and felt more like an "infomercial."

While Bouchillon said he is not against walking trails, he simply feels that there are too many negatives, and even the time and money spent conducting further research could be better spent. In his letter, Bouchillon expressed concern about environmental and maintenance costs, whether the railroad corridor has to eventually be converted to a trail because federal money is being used and whether civic center SPLOST funds can be used without eventually building a civic center.

"Based on my conversations with members of the county commission who have stated opposition to this project and with council members (Keith) Dalton and (Chris) Smith, they have done their homework and they realize there are far better uses for precious tax dollars," Bouchillon wrote. "There is no lack of information. There is enough to know this is not a project that warrants further study and waste of taxpayer money and government personnel time."

Bouchillon told The News after the April 29 meeting that he would like to hold another informational railroad meeting which would focus on the more negative aspects.

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