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Posted: April 22, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Let’s get on track for railroad buy

My head spins. My eyes cross. My neck tightens. I find it hard to draw a deep breath, and my hands tremble uncontrollably.

No, I am not announcing here a diagnosis of a fatal illness, but rather what has become my predictable response when I read of ongoing local government talks with Norfolk Southern Railroad.

Some four years ago now, the railroad proposed to sell the county 15 miles of unused tracks from Porterdale to Newborn. Local leaders at the time, Covington Mayor Sam Ramsey and Commission Chair Aaron Varner, thought enough of the potential to seek federal funds through then-Congressman Jim Marshall to assist in the purchase. A grant of $1.1 million came through, but as I understand it today, the exact purchase price is open to negotiation.

The municipalities in our county are proceeding with legitimate intent toward the purchase of the railroad property, by hook or by crook.

Bless their hearts.

Our mayors understand the importance of owning the right-of-way, whatever its ultimate purpose, better than do our county commissioners who won't even talk about it. In fact, they didn't even want the county chair to get the facts that would facilitate a conversation. Like Scarlett O'Hara, they want to worry about it tomorrow. If then.
We've become a place where ideas go to die.

For example, we've been talking about Bear Creek Reservoir for some 10 years now. It was touted at the outset as the means to secure our county's water needs for at least 25 years. Instead, it will probably take 25 years before the first shovel is turned.

If there's anything in the works, anything to indicate progress on the project, it's not visible to the naked eye of an observer. It's been good business for some local attorneys, but so far, it's meant nothing to county residents.

What of the Civic Center that voters approved in the 2005 SPLOST? Oh, yeah, the private partner dropped out and the economy tanked, but the collected funds are sitting untouched and can't be used for anything else until about 2016, I believe it is.

Here's another good idea that never got off the ground. Let's forget that many other cities/counties our size have invested in civic centers to accommodate conventions and arts performances. So should we, as soon as the economy permits.

Let's not forget that tourism is the hottest thing going locally at this time. It's what's putting us on the map and bringing visitors from around the world to our humble abode.

Now back to those railroad talks.

The whole issue became impossibly embroiled in politics, personal and otherwise, when the question centered on whether to create a walking trail along the route. (County planning documents have long touted the need to invest in walking routes and green space, but the follow-through has been abysmal.)

It incensed private property owners in the eastern part of the county to think of the unwashed masses that might one day go sauntering across their property, although the specter of a locomotive hauling who-knows-what didn't cause alarm.

I get their distress; I truly do, and I agree that the ultimate use of the railroad right-of-way, if acquired by the county, would need to be worked out to cause them no personal harm. Surely that's do-able among people of good faith.

Here's where I stand: The county should stop talking - or rather, not talking - about it and proceed with the purchase immediately.

It might take partnering with private entities, some of whom are willing to put up private funds because they see the ultimate value to the county. If there's a will, there'll be a way.

Purchasing the right-of-way is plainly a matter of public security.

We must control what passes through this county - period. We should have the option of running water lines from the elusive Bear Creek Reservoir along that right-of-way to the rest of the county, much cheaper than any other option on the table. We should own the rights to the income from utility easements that cross the tracks.

Plenty of other entities are interested in this property, and if anybody else buys it right from under our nose, we'll have absolutely no control over what they do with it that might not be in our best interests. If our county commissioners can't see the wisdom in this purchase, to secure our borders, so to speak, they don't deserve to be sitting in policy-making positions in this county. We are at risk while they sit and do nothing.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

 

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