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Mayor: Prior railroad facts not right
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The Covington City Council voted for the second time Monday not to pursue a railroad purchase, but discussions have continued throughout the week about the future of the community's favorite talking point.

The council voted 4-2 Monday against sending a letter of intent to purchase to Norfolk Southern, with council members Keith Dalton, Ocie Franklin, Chris Smith and Hawnethia Williams opposed. But Mayor Kim Carter said Thursday that some of the information released since the vote is inaccurate.

Carter attempted to set the railroad purchase record straight, releasing information showing the purchase price for the rail line in the city could be $7,000 per acre.

In the latest round of discussions, the city was offered 4.92 miles of rail line in the city limits for between $1.2 million and $1.35 million. The .04-mile section for the civic center was not up for the city to purchase, as that is part of a county SPLOST project.

Those 4.92 miles constitute 45.55 acres of land, according to calculations conducted by both Norfolk Southern and the city's Geographic Information Systems department. At the highest discussed price of $1.35 million, this would be $29,637 per acre.

However, Carter said she has received verbal guarantees from state officials that the city would be able to use the two federal earmarks provided by Jim Marshall's office for the purchase of railroad right-of-way.

Although the $1.03 million in earmarks comes from the federal government, Carter said new U.S. Rep. Austin Scott (R-Macon) has said he will not get involved in those earmarks secured by his predecessor. Therefore, the decision is in state transportation officials hands.

Taking the earmarks into account, the city would only be on the hook for $315,304. Based on that number, the price per acre would be $6,922.

Councilman Smith opposed moving forward and said Wednesday that he never got a firm answer about whether the city would be able to use the federal earmarks. Carter said the answer was never provided in writing but could be.

The $1.2 million price for 4.92 miles is surprising considering that in 2009 it was announced that the city and county had discussed purchasing a 12-mile section of the line in Newton County, from Porterdale to Newborn, for $1.8 million.

However, Carter said that was not an accurate number. Rather the price was closer to a range of $3 million to $3.5 million for the rail line throughout Newton County. There are 16.88 miles of Norfolk Southern rail line in the county, nearly a third of which is the city, which puts the $1.2 million price in perspective.

It's difficult to tell how the railroad corridor land would be appraised because of its unique use and typically thin nature, 100 feet at the widest, but land in the heart of city would be valued much higher.

Equally important to the good purchase price is the fact that city staff including City Manager Steve Horton and department heads, support the purchase, Carter said. Horton has gone on record as believe the corridor should be owned.

Neither Carter nor Horton are concerned with building a trail, an expensive proposition, but they do believe the city should own the land to protect a valuable corridor and save the city money in future easement costs whenever it would run electricity lines or gas and water pipes along the corridor. Carter said the railroad is not currently receiving any revenue from companies for utility or telecommunications crossings, so future revenue benefits are slim, but cost savings are the real benefit.

Regardless of opinions at this point, it appears the railroad and city are on different paths. Carter said the railroad has nearly run out of patience, considering negotiations have been taking place in some form since 2007.

On the other side, the city council has now made two votes not to pursue a railroad purchase.

"I hope this puts it to bed. I'm tired of talking about it. I think the city is tired of talking about it. I don't know how many times we have to say no," Smith said.

The council discussed the latest offer in executive session Monday and voted in executive session not to declare formally its intent to purchase the line. The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that government entities can vote in executive session on real estate acquisitions in the ruling Johnson v. Board of Commissioners of Bibb County.

Because the council voted to not pursue, or "abandon," the project, the minutes then become open to the public.