How to Buy a Railroad
Morell described several different ways that the county and city could acquire the railroad, depending on how and when they wanted to use it. Some of the options included:
• the county and city could purchase the railroad from Norfolk Southern and become a railroad themselves
• the county and city could buy the physical assets of railroad but not the right to operate it; then Norfolk Southern would transfer the operation rights directly to an operator
• the county and city could negotiate an Interim Trail Use Agreement with Norfolk Southern to use the abandoned lines for trails
There were other options and variations of options, which is why Morell was brought in to educate the county, city and public.
Newton County and the City of Covington are considering purchasing railroad from Norfolk Southern for various future uses. The city and county held a joint public meeting Tuesday to better understand the process of purchasing a railroad and the possible benefits and costs.
The city and county initially talked to Norfolk Southern about purchasing half of an acre of property north of Stalling Street, between Pace and Hunter streets to accommodate the proposed civic center, conference center and hotel. Norfolk Southern agreed to sell this property for $450,000, but the economic downturn caused the civic center project to halt, said Andrea Gray, an attorney in Tommy Craig’s office.
Norfolk Southern then agreed to sell its entire 27-mile line from Porterdale to Shady Dale for $3.1 million, Gray said. Usage of this line has decreased over the past several years decreasing profitability and only one customer uses the line currently, Rose Acre Feed Mill, an egg farm in Newborn.
The city and county then discussed purchasing only the 12-mile part of the line in Newton County from Porterdale to Newborn for $1.8 million, Gray said.
The county and city continue to explore all of their options, which led to Tuesday’s joint public meeting.
Why the city and county want the railroad
The county and city have many potential uses in mind for the railroad if they were to purchase it, including converting some railroads to pedestrian trails, using the railroad to appeal to industry and eventually creating a mass transportation rail system.
Purchasing railroads is a complicated process, so the city and county brought in Washington, D.C.-based attorney Karl Morell, a transportation lawyer with 30 years of experience, to explain all of the ways a railroad can be acquired and used and some of the potential positive and negative effects.
Because the railroad is no longer profitable for Norfolk Southern, the company is looking to sell or abandon the railroad, Morell said. One of Chairman Kathy Morgan’s biggest concerns is that someone else could buy the railroad and use it for whatever they wanted, removing control from local government.
"We don’t need it for the next five years, but I have an interest in what happens 20 years down the line. I’m concerned about losing control (of the railroad)," Morgan said.
The use which has been pursued so far is converting some of the railroad into a pedestrian trail. Mayor Kim Carter said the portion of railroad in Covington is already used as a trail by some citizens and she believes a trail would be beneficial to the city in several ways.
"We’re an urban area, so a trail, pathway, bikeway would be in the interest of the city," Carter said. "This can be positive from an economic development point of view, preservation of green space, recreation."
County residents at Tuesday’s meeting expressed concern about the railroad being converted to a trail in the country, because they already have problems with trespassing and theft.
Morgan said the county’s interest was different from the city and she said she had no interest in converting the railroad to trails in the county.
"I can’t see the trails going out into the county. I talked to the Sheriff and we can’t police the trails, it’s not feasible," Morgan said. "I’m focused more on future transportation needs and economic development opportunities in Mansfield and Newborn."
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.
Resident Jerry Bouchillon said there are many other projects that need money, like the library and historic jail, and he said the county and city’s most pressing need was to improve streets.
Morgan said she never had any intention of paying the full $1.8 million and would negotiate with Norfolk Southern.
The county has just over $1 million in federal money set aside for purchasing railroads, which has been secured by Congressman Jim Marshall over the past two years. There is also $500,000 in SPLOST funding from the civic and conference centers project.
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said if the county doesn’t purchase railroads, they need to look into other possible uses for the $1 million from Marshall, so that the county doesn’t have to give the money back.
"Because if we return that money, what will Congressman Marshall think when we ask him for money in the future," Schulz said.
No final decisions have been made and the county and city will continue to look into this proposal.