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City rail committee to meet Friday
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The city of Covington’s newly-formed Rail Corridor Committee will have its first meeting at 10 a.m. Friday at City Hall. The meeting is open to the public.

The committee has been charged with gathering facts about the unused Norfolk Southern Railroad line, which has been for sale in some form since at least 2007. No agenda has been released for Friday’s meeting.

The committee consists of Mayor Kim Carter, East Ward Councilman Keith Dalton, West Ward Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams, Mayor-elect Ronnie Johnston, City Manager Steve Horton and city attorney Frank Turner Jr.

Discussion for and against purchasing the railroad corridor, about 5 miles of which run through Covington’s city limits, has been a constant in Newton County for the past few years.

The price for the Covington portion is between $1.2 and $1.3 million, Carter said previously; however, this does not include .04-acre of property needed for a future downtown civic center project. The civic center project was what originally spurred the railroad sale talk. The center is on hold indefinitely after original plans fell through during the economic downturn.

Both the Covington City Council and Newton County Board of Commissioners have previously voted not to purchase the corridor and voted not to explore negotiations further. However, the Covington council reversed course Nov. 21 when it voted 4-2 to gather more facts.

Opponents have said the purchase itself would be too expensive, and they have opposed any possibility of building a trail, which would only add costs.

Proponents believe the corridor is valuable because of its connectivity and its potential to house utility or water lines. The city has federal earmarks totaling $1.03 million, Carter said. The earmarks were originally in Newton County’s name, but can now be used by the city, Carter said.

No other potential buyers besides local governments in Newton County have been publically identified. The rail corridor is fee simple, which means the railroad owns the land outright; the land would most likely not be freely returned to neighboring property owners, even if the railroad was officially abandoned.

In The News’ unscientific, weekly online poll, 59.5 percent of respondents (144 votes) felt the city should abandon any further pursuit of purchasing the railroad.

On the other side, 16 percent of respondents (40 votes) felt more discussion was needed and 24 percent of voters (58 votes) felt the city should have already bought the corridor.