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Key railroad questions remain
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Covington's newly formed Rail Corridor Committee cordially discussed Friday whether to purchase the no-longer-in-use Norfolk Southern Railroad, but officials agreed significant fact-finding is required before a final decision can be made.

Two crucial questions have yet to be definitively answered despite the fact purchase negotiations have been in the works for several years:

1. If the railroad corridor is purchased using federal earmarks, which were written under the title of "Rails-to-Trails," does the corridor have to eventually be converted into a trail?

2. How much would a purchase and any subsequent work cost, and how much revenue could the city potentially save or even earn by owning the corridor?

Trail Required?

Mayor Kim Carter started the meeting by saying the committee was "not here to talk about trails," but to have a fact-based discussion about potential business uses. However, conflicting reports were given on whether trails are inextricably linked to a purchase.

The $1.035 million in federal earmarks only cover purchase of railroad property - no trail development - and Carter said she's had several conversations with state officials that said the railroad can be purchased and not converted into a trail.

However, Airport Engineer Vincent Passariello, who was filling for City Manager Steve Horton, read a recent email he received from a Georgia Department of Transportation official that said the corridor must be converted to a trail if federal money is used.

Carter and Passariello will attempt to get clarification of that issue. If the corridor must be converted into a trail, Carter said it's important whether that would have to happen within a few years or several decades.

She said if a trail is in fact required, the city could determine the cost to build a trail based on historical examples and also indentify sources of money to build a trail.

Benefits and Costs

Incoming Mayor Ronnie Johnston said he was mainly interested in the corridor because of its potential to save the city money in the future. Passariello said the city has $90,000 in easement to Norfolk Southern for the right to cross the corridor with utility lines. Councilman Keith Dalton asked for clarification about whether this was just for Norfolk Southern rights or if this included money paid to CSX.

Similarly, Covington would be able to make money if it owned the corridor and companies had to pay the city for easements. However, Mayor Kim Carter said Norfolk Southern is not collecting any revenue, because of a lawsuit stemming from Norfolk Southern's former lessee Great Walton Railroad selling an easement it didn't have the right to sell.

Another question is whether it's worthwhile for the city to use the two federal earmarks, given all the steps that are required with federal money, including:

-paying upfront for all engineering oversight work, which will consist of plan concept reports, environmental studies and right-of-way plans

-hire a pre-qualified state transportation appraiser; the city cannot offer less than fair market value when negotiating a sale price.

Passariello estimated that it would take two years and cost $70,000 for the city to finish all those steps and actually get to the negotiating table.

That $70,000 and any additional upfront costs could be used as part of the city's 20 percent local match needed in order to use federal money. Although 20 percent of $1.035 million is $207,000, the latest estimate is that city would have to contribute $349,000.

The city is facing a deadline to decide whether to use the federal earmarks. The first earmark's deadline is September 2012 and the second earmark's deadline is September 2013. The city would have to have agreed to use the earmarks and made some progress on the project in order to not lose access to the money.

If the city were to decide to use the earmarks, begin on the project and then change its mind, it would lose any money it spent as a penalty for turning back.

Although at least one of the earmarks is in Newton County's name, the county has officially turned down the money, and Carter read an email from Chairman Kathy Morgan requesting that the city be allowed to use the earmarks if desired. Passariello said the state has said it would allow the city to use the earmarks.

Carter tasked herself and Passariello with getting answers to questions and gathering more information for the next meeting, which will be scheduled later.


Buy the Golf Course Instead?

Councilman Dalton asked if the earmarks could possibly be repurposed to purchase the recently-closed Indian Creek Golf Club at 10400 Covington ByPass Road.

He said that would satisfy any desire for trails, as there are paved trails already on the course, and it could potentially be a site for the future civic center, which was how the entire railroad purchase discussion got started. He heard the asking price was around $1 million.

The 2005 SPLOST called for a civic center to be built, and officials identified a location downtown that required the railroad to be purchased and removed for the center and adjacent parking. The project was put on hold indefinitely after original plans fell through during the economic downturn.

Passariello said he did not believe the earmarks could be repurposed. More importantly, this is the first public mention of buying the golf course, an idea city officials have bandied about behind the scenes.

There are publicly-owned golf courses; the City of Conyers owns the Cherokee Run Golf Club at the Georgia International Horse Park, while the golf course at Hard Labor State Park is state owned. Officials have discussed buying the golf course and operating it as a golf course, while Friday's mention implied it be used more as a general greenspace area.