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Council votes to not pursue grant to spend on new pedestrian trails
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New Grant Writer Randy Conner presented six grant opportunities to the Covington City Council Monday night, and the council approved pursuing all of them, except for one tied to the Norfolk Southern railroad.

Conner said the city had the opportunity to pursue a federal transportation grant, which would provide the city with money to convert some of the Norfolk Southern railroad into trails in the city — if the railroad was ever purchased.

The grant would have been acquired through U.S. Congressman Jim Marshall’s office, similar to the more than $1 million which has already been awarded locally for the purchase of the railroad.

However, when the council voted on whether to pursue the grant, the result was 2-4, with council members Keith Dalton, Ocie Franklin, Chris Smith and Hawnethia Williams opposing.

When Mayor Kim Carter asked for discussion and rationale as to why the council members were not in favor; all four sat silent. 

Conner said purchasing the railroad and installing trails has been a long-term goal and is in the city and county’s comprehensive plans, as well as other planning documents. He read quotes in favor of trails and improved walkability from the president of Smart Growth and the CEO of Ruby Tuesday. He also referred to studies of other trails which talked showed that trails bring in business and increase revenues.

Council members Janet Goodman and Mike Whatley voted in favor of the grant, but only after assurances that the city would not have to use the money even if awarded.

The grant was estimated to be $721,231, but would have required a $224,870 local match; however, $170,000 of the match could have been in-kind services.

Conner said when he first was hired by the city, he had no opinion about the railroad. However, after studying the project in depth he believes it would have substantial positive social and economic effects.

"I have studied a lot since I got here. I have all kind of notes and studies that have been done and different research I’ve conducted. I’m convinced this is in the best interest of the city as a whole," he said. "Especially in the areas in need of revitalization. The railroad makes a perfect semi circle around downtown Covington. We couldn’t have laid it out any better if we tried. I think it’s a very important piece of revitalization and for the future of the city."

Conner said one-thing people don’t realize is that Norfolk Southern owns all of the land underneath its rail; as opposed to other rail lines where the railroad company simply has an easement or right-of-way.

"There is a misconception that the railroad holds an easement on the property, when in fact they hold fee-simple title to the land. The land has always been referred to as a "right-of-way" when in fact it is not," Conner said in an e-mail Tuesday.

"The railroad actually owns the property, so if the city and county don’t buy it, then somebody else will buy it; the railroad will not sell it piecemeal, they will sell the whole thing," Conner expanded in a later phone interview.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners discussed the railroad purchase in executive session at their retreat on Feb. 21. They did not disclose whether they were going to continue negotiating a purchase.

The portion of the railroad in Newton County is currently dormant and is in the process of being abandoned by Norfolk Southern. A 12-mile portion of the line runs from Porterdale to Newborn, and the last publically discussed price was $1.8 million.

Conner said the city would have focused initially on putting a trail on the portion of the railroad that runs between Emory Street and Conyers Street.

Compressed Natural Gas

One grant the city did approve pursuing was a grant to install a compressed natural gas fueling facility in Covington.

The possible $2.7 million grant would be from the federal Department of Energy and would be used to build a facility as well as buy new CNG cars and possibly retrofit existing city cars. The grant would again come through Congressman Marshall’s office. The facility would be located on property already owned by the city and located adjacent to an existing natural gas service pipeline; so the infrastructure costs would be minimal.

Conner said the city could also participate with the Newton County boards of commissioners and education. Combined, the three bodies use 1.2 million gallons of fuel. While the price per gallon of gas hovers above $2.50, Conner said CNG runs less than $1.25 per equivalent gallon. He said even if just a small portion of the entities’ fleets were converted, those groups could save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In addition, Conner said the facility could potentially help attract companies with large delivery and distribution fleets, like Coca-Cola or Frito-Lay, because those industries would also benefit from the greatly reduced cost of CNG.

In addition to the cheaper fuel costs, CNG vehicles typically have a lifespan of 300,000 to 400,000, as opposed to 200,000 miles for gasoline-powered vehicles.

Conner said there are heavy tax incentives available for residents who are looking to buy CNG cars or convert their current cars, so the public could see a benefit as well.

No city vehicles currently run on CNG. If the grant was approved, the city would have a $675,000 match, but again the majority, $500,000, could be in-kind services, like engineering work.

Water Grants

The council also agreed to apply for four water grants. Three would be to replace aging water lines and the fourth is a water security project that would make hydrants less susceptible to purposeful contamination.