Reach­ing end of the line

Rails could be torn up, sold

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - GABRIEL KHOULI gkhouli@cov­

The long-unused Nor­folk South­ern rail line may fi­nally be torn up and sold.

Nor­folk South­ern filed a no­tice with the fed­eral Sur­face Trans­porta­tion Board last week to aban­don its 14.9mile por­tion of rail line in New­ton County, a long-talked-about step that sets the stage for the com­pany to pull up and sell the steel rails and also sell the un­der­ly­ing land.

No trains have run on the por­tion of tracks in New­ton County since at least 2010, but aban­don­ing the line would en­sure it’s never used as a rail line again, un­less an­other rail­road com­pany were to step into the pic­ture.

Nor­folk South­ern, and its sub­sidiary Great Wal­ton Rail­road, pre­vi­ously ap­plied in 2010 to dis­con­tinue use on the line, a move that de­clared the line would not be used, but re­served the right for the com­pany to restart rail ser­vice if war­ranted.

Be­cause the line has been out of ser­vice for more than two years, the rail line will au­to­mat­i­cally be aban­doned

50 days af­ter the fil­ing, which will be Aug. 20, ac­cord­ing to Karl Morell, an at­tor­ney and rail­road law ex­pert with the Port­land, Ore.-based Ball Janik law firm. Morell was brought to New­ton County in 2009 by county at­tor­ney Tommy Craig’s of­fice when the county was con­sid­er­ing pur­chas­ing part or all of the rail line.

Morell said once Nor­folk South­ern of­fi­cially “con­sum­mates” the aban­don­ment, the rail line ceases to be an of­fi­cial cor­ri­dor.

“It goes from a rail line to just prop­erty,” Morell said.

Nor­folk South­ern has sev­eral op­tions be­fore or af­ter aban­don­ment, Norell said, most of which in­volve the sale of ei­ther part or all of the line to a va­ri­ety of par­ties, in­clud­ing an­other rail­road com­pany, landown­ers ad­ja­cent to the rail line, or a govern­ment or non­profit group.

A Nor­folk South­ern spokesper­son could not be reached for comment this week.

The county Board of Com­mis­sion­ers and Cov­ing­ton City Coun­cil have voted not to pur­sue any pur­chase of the rail line and are not ac­tively ex­plor­ing the is­sue. The groups had ac­cess to around $1 mil­lion in fed­eral ear­marks for a pur­chase, but did not use the money. The pur­chase prices stated sec­ond hand by govern­ment of­fi­cials var­ied, but the most re­cent price stated by the realty group mar­ket­ing the land was nearly $4 mil­lion for the por­tion in New­ton.

“The city of Cov­ing­ton is not pur­su­ing the rail in any way, shape or form,” Cov­ing­ton Mayor Ron­nie John­ston said Wed­nes­day.

New­ton Trails in­ter­ested

How­ever, one group that’s ex­pressed in­ter­est pre­vi­ously and re­mains in­ter­ested is the non­profit trail ad­vo­cacy non­profit New­ton Trails.

New­ton Trails Chair­man Flo­rian Pohl said the group is aware of the aban­don­ment and is con­sid­er­ing op­tions with its at­tor­ney, in­clud­ing the fed­eral process of rail­bank­ing.

Through rail­bank­ing, a group pur­chases a rail line and con­verts into a trail. There are two im­por­tant fac­tors with such a move, Morell said. The first is that the rail line can be re­con- verted into a rail­road at any point; the sec­ond re­lated point is that the land un­der the rail line re­mains in­tact.

When rail lines were cre­ated, some were built on land wholly-owned by a rail­road com­pany, while oth­ers used ease­ments over prop­erty. If a rail line is aban­doned, the land would even­tu­ally re­vert to the orig­i­nal landowner, Morell said.

Cov­ing­ton’s grant writer Randy Con­ner, stud­ied the rail line for the city in-depth pre­vi­ously and said the rail line is com­pletely owned by the rail­road com­pany. How­ever, the land records in ques­tion are very old, and in its fil­ing, Nor­folk South­ern said it “may not own all of the right-of-way un­der­ly­ing the line pro­posed for aban­don­ment…” Morell said that could just be cau­tion­ary lan­guage, but he didn’t know.

If New­ton Trails filed a re­quest for rail­bank­ing, Pohl said the non­profit would not be bound to pur­chase the cor­ri­dor, but the re­quest would open up ne­go­ti­a­tions with Nor­folk South­ern.

“(Rail­bank­ing re­quests are) quite com­monly done be­cause it at least gives us a chance to sit down with the rail­road again,” Pohl said. “Our hope is the aban­don­ment fil­ing can gen­er­ate some en­ergy again and make the pub­lic aware that things are go­ing to change if the rail­road goes through and aban­dons that cor­ri­dor.”

Other pos­si­bil­i­ties

Pohl said a trail is just one use for the cor­ri­dor, which has also been talked about ex­ten­sively as a pos­si­ble cor­ri­dor to house wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture, namely pip­ing from the planned Bear Creek Reser­voir in south- eastern New­ton County. The New­ton County Wa­ter and Sew­er­age Au­thor­ity pre­vi­ously ex­pressed in­ter­est in the idea, but has never done a con­clu­sive study to see if the route would be the most ef­fi­cient.

The town of New­born has also pre­vi­ously ex­pressed in­ter­est in a pur­chase, as Mayor Roger Sheri­dan has said a trail that runs to or through New­born would be great for the town. Sheri­dan could not be reached by phone Fri­day.

New­born and New­ton Trails have pre­vi­ously been try­ing to find money for a po­ten­tial pur­chase.

Ac­cord­ing to Nor­folk South­ern’s fil­ing with the Sur­face Trans­porta­tion Board, “Fol­low­ing aban­don­ment, the line’s rail and re­lated track ma­te­rial will be sal­vaged…all sal­vaged steel com­po­nents will ei­ther be reused or sold as scrap.”

The scrap me­tal had an es­ti­mated of value of $600,000 to $900,000, said Wil­liam But­ler, with JWB Realty, the group mar­ket­ing the rail line for sale, in a Novem­ber 2012 in­ter­view.

The fil­ing says the cross-ties would ei­ther be reused else­where or dis­posed of in ac­cor­dance with state and fed­eral law. The fil­ing also says the rail­road “ex­pects to ar­range for the re­moval of the bridges on the line.” There are four bridges along the rail line that are older than 50 years, ac­cord­ing to the fil­ing; the bridges were built in 1916, 1921, 1922 and 1925.

The rail line and four bridges are po­ten­tially el­i­gi­ble for in­clu­sion in the National Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places, ac­cord­ing to a let­ter from David Cross, di­vi­sion di­rec­tor of The Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources. The let­ter ref­er­ences find­ing ways to avoid, min­i­mize or mit­i­gate the his­tor­i­cal im­pact. In its fil­ing, Nor­folk South­ern said it be­lieved the bridges did not merit his­tor­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tion as there were no dis­tin­guish­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics from other bridges in the re­gion or on the com­pany’s rail sys­tem.

Af­ter the rails are re­moved, the roadbed would be smoothed.

The fil­ing also in­cludes a his­tory of the line, which dates back to be­tween 1890 and 1894, when the Mid­dle Ge­or­gia and At­lantic Rail­way Com­pany formed a 64-mile rail­road link from Milledgeville to Cov­ing­ton.

The line be­tween Ea­ton­ton and Machen was opened in 1891, and the line was ex­tended north to Cov­ing­ton in 1893, ac­cord­ing to the fil­ing.

Nor­folk South­ern pre­vi­ously de­cided not to go through the aban­don­ment process in 2010; a spokesper­son said at the time fu­ture use of the tracks was a con­cern.

“(Nor­folk South­ern) may want to re­tain its op­er­at­ing rights into New­ton County for fu­ture in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, and if NS were to aban­don this line and re­move the tracks, there can be no fu­ture rail-served in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties,” spokes­woman Su­san Ter­pay said in an email at the time.

The com­pany ap­pears to no longer have such con­cerns.

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file photo /The Cov­ing­ton News

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