Norfolk Southern wants to sell its 15-plus mile portion of railroad in Newton County to some local government entity by the end of the first quarter, March 31.
At her state of the city address Thursday, Mayor Kim Carter said she received an e-mail from Norfolk Southern that said the company wanted to have an agreement in place by March 31.
The e-mail said that the appraisal of the railroad property had increased substantially, and Carter said that the final purchase price would likely be about $2 million. The county has just more than $1 million in federal grants that can be used for the purchase.
Covington, Newton County and other governments are planning to meet again to discuss the purchase of what many leaders consider to be vital property. Covington City Council has previously voted to not pursue a railroad purchase, and the county board of commissioners has not pursued any purchase.
A public-private partnership of the Newton County Trail Path Foundation and the governments of Mansfield, Newborn, Oxford and Porterdale has been negotiating with Norfolk Southern representatives.
The original publically released price for a 14.9 mile section of the railroad - from Porterdale to just north of Newborn - was $1.8 million. Path Foundation Chairman Maurice Carter said Thursday night, after the speech, that the price had been negotiated down to $1.5 million.
However, the two sides had been negotiating to include even more land in the deal, to extend the railroad purchase into downtown Porterdale on the north through Newborn's city limits on the south. That would increase the distance past 15 miles. The increased land plus the increased appraisal price could push the total price back up to around $2 million. Mayor Carter said that would leave some local combination of groups to contribute around $900,000.
The railroad corridor could have many uses, including running water lines to the rest of the county from Bear Creek Reservoir, once that project is completed in the southern section of the county. Maurice Carter said that the cost to buy land for that infrastructure to cross would be very expensive, according to the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority. The railroad corridor would be a convenient right-of-way for that water infrastructure.
Former Mayor Sam Ramsey spoke Thursday night to the assembled crowd and said that while the corridor could have many uses, those will not be determined until a few years down the road. However, by that point, some private company may have purchased the land, and Newton County will have lost out on valuable land, he said.
Newton Trails Chairman Maurice Carter clarified in a Sunday e-mail that his organization has spent $19,033 in 2010 on legal, professional and consulting fees to investigate whether the railroad corridor could be used as a trail in the future. The non-profit agreed in the original Memorandum of Understanding to raise private funds to cover such expenses, but has never intended to raise money for the actual purchase. Maurice Carter had said Thursday night that some local businessmen might contribute to such a purchase.
While discussions have taken place with Congressman Austin Scott's office about possibly moving the federal grants from Newton County to another entity, Maurice Carter said the best thing would be for the county and all county groups to be involved.
He said once the railroad was purchased, the county could hold public input and planning meetings to determine the best uses for the corridors. While trails and a park at the railroad's heads could be part of the corridor use, he believes it has many possibilities.
He noted that many county and city comprehensive and transportation plans state that the railroad should be purchased. The county and Covington will have to determine whether those are still relevant today.