Covington and Newton County residents used Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting as a public forum to debate the merits of purchasing railroad from Norfolk Southern.
Covington resident Maurice Carter spoke first during the public comments section and 16 residents stood up with him in support. He advocated purchasing part of the railroad to use for trails in the city. Covington residents Freddie Neely and Guy McGiboney spoke for the opposition and were joined by more than 20 residents. They said purchasing the railroad would be a waste of money and that a trail system would lead to more crime.
Carter, who also made a presentation at Monday’s city council work session, said he wanted to show support for the railroad purchase and listed several possible benefits.
He said trails and multi-use greenways would promote active lifestyles, provide alternate transportation options, increase economic development through tourism, industry recruitment and community enrichment, increase values for properties near the trail, preserve green space and maintain Newton County’s historic and cultural heritage.
He said many previous county plans including the county’s overall, recreation and transpiration comprehensive plans, the economic development study and the Liveable Communities Initiative study of U.S. Highway 278 all promote green space and multi-use trails.
"Each of these plans touches on the need for greenways and trails," he said. "Several explicitly reference the railroad. We should not be talking about if, we should be talking about when and how."
Carter said that some residents have been concerned about an increase in crime, but he said between 20 and 40 people already pass by his house on Floyd Street while walking along the railroad and he hasn’t experienced any crime.
"I’m not afraid of them. No one has tried to sell me drugs, and no one has trespassed on my property," he said. "Extensive nation-wide studies by the National Park Service and others repeatedly demonstrate trails are among the safest places in America."
Carter said he understands other residents concerns, but he feels that the opportunity to purchase the railroad is too great. He said budgetary concerns may not be as much of an issue either because of all the funding the county already has that has been designated for this purpose. He said the county needs to continue to look into the purchase price to see if the railroad will be worth the investment.
The county has more than $1 million in federal money to purchase railroads and $500,000 in special local option sales tax money from the civic center project. So far, Norfolk Southern has offered to sell the railroad for $1.8 million.
McGiboney, who spoke for himself and not the more than 20 people who stood up in opposition, said his main concern is crime and a lack of money. He said his daughter’s house out in the country has been broken into five or six times over the past year.
"No matter what you say we’re going to have crime," McGiboney said. "Even one crime turns me off (to the railroad project)."
He said with the county’s financial situation it shouldn’t buy this railroad. He said money would be better spent on the other projects like the Bear Creek Reservoir that benefit citizens more. He said he had heard conversations of a possible commuter train in the future, but the condition of the tracks would be a liability for the county. He said the project is a white elephant and that the county doesn’t need to buy the railroad at this time.
Neely represented the assembled opposition group and said that even though he lived in Covington he was still opposed to the railroad.
"It seems like the city is pushing this on the county," Neely said. "We’re already putting trails around here, how many trails does Covington need? It’s jut going to benefit the few, select, elite people in the city of Covington and the county will have to bear the burden."
Neely said this is the wrong decision for the county, with the current economic situation. He said the people in the county and the people who would move to Newton County in the future were depending on the leaders to not place an unnecessary burden on them.
"People are really struggling. I think everybody in this room knows that. I mean I can’t believe this. Is this something that we really need," Neely asked. "I don’t think so. I think when it comes down to it in the bottom of your heart you’ll do the right thing."
The county and city have not made any final decision on the railroad and Chairman Kathy Morgan said Tuesday that the county is continuing to look into all of its possible options. At April 21 public meeting about the railroad Morgan said the county is not looking to use the railroad for trails, but for other future use and she has no intention of paying the full $1.8 million price. Mayor Kim Carter has previously said that Covington would likely use some of the railroads in the city for pedestrian trails.
On April 21 commissioners Mort Ewing, Tim Fleming and J.C. Henderson expressed concern about the cost of purchasing and maintaining the railroad. Henderson said he didn’t see where the money could come from and Fleming added that this proposal had no support in his district.
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said on April 21 that if the county doesn’t purchase railroads, they need to look into other possible uses for the $1 million in federal funding, so that the county doesn’t have to give the money back.
"Because if we return that money, what will Congressman (Jim) Marshall think when we ask him for money in the future," Schulz asked previously.