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Board backs continued rail operation

Lincoln County supervisors are more than happy to sit on thefirst pew and sing the praises of the Natchez-to-Brookhavenrailroad.

Just don’t pass them the offering plate.

Supervisors on Monday carefully ensured they didn’t make anyfinancial commitments in formally endorsing a regional effortsupporting the continued operation of the east-west line runningfrom Natchez to Brookhaven, attaching a disclaimer to theresolution clearing the county of any such obligation. By passingthe resolution unanimously, Lincoln County joined several otherSouthwest Mississippi counties considering the resolution to urgerailroad owners Natchez Railway, LLC, to continue operating the66-mile track after a two-year compulsion to do so in theircontract expires next spring.

“It’s a noble gesture, and something we shouldn’t mind doing,but we make no formal commitment to expend funds until we decidewhat’s in the best interest of Lincoln County,” said board attorneyBob Allen, summarizing the addendum.

The resolution – which contains no authority and exists simplyas a show of support – brings supervisors to the railwaynegotiating table for the first time since Natchez Railway, LLC,purchased the track from Canadian National in 2009.

Regional business leaders at first praised the sale of the line,hoping the new owners would inject life into the little-used,neglected spur. But the celebration turned sour almost immediatelywhen it was discovered the owners of the new corporation also ownSalt Lake City-based A&K Railroad Materials, Inc., one of thenation’s leading railroad salvage companies.

Worries the new owners would scrap the line after the two-yearobligation sprang up overnight, with several state lawmakers -including Brookhaven’s District 92 Rep. Becky Currie – passingresolutions urging the federal Surface Transportation Board toprohibit the sale.

Natchez Railway, LLC, has tried to calm the region’s fears inseveral published interviews and opinion pieces, but no one isbuying it.

Concerned leaders are accusing the company of ignoring newbusiness opportunities and damaging businesses already in place,pointing to the stiff tariffs the company has placed on Bude’sAmerican Railcar Industries, which is paying hundreds of dollarsfor every car moved into and out of its repair facility on theline.

Even Lincoln County’s District Three Supervisor Nolan Williamsonhas his doubts about the company’s true intention.

“With metal at $9 per ton, it’s gone,” he predicted.

Regional meetings to discuss the line’s future have been commonthis year, as leaders have reached out to state lawmakers,congressmen and federal agencies, searching for some kind of checkon the rail company’s tariffs and future option to scrap the line.Officials from Adams and Franklin counties have led the charge,pointing out the railroad’s importance in recruiting new industriesto the area.

It’s not as important, however, in Lincoln County, where theLinbrook Business Park industrial site remains tied into CanadianNational’s main north-south line, which runs from New Orleans toChicago. County supervisors are standing behind their peers, buteven if the railroad’s termination were realized, it’s unlikelythey’d jump into any drastic action.

“We need to make sure we’re not signed on when someone wants tofloat a $16 million bond,” Allen speculated. “What they’re actuallytrying to do is create a railroad authority, and I’m sure the endgoal is to buy that 66 miles as a public railroad entity.”

District Two Supervisor Bobby Watts, while not advocating a moreinvolved commitment to the railroad, stressed the track’ssignificance to Lincoln County as a shipment link to theMississippi River.

“The Mississippi River is not recreational, it’s commercial. Itmay not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but some day that trackis going to be needed,” he said. “We never know when a war is goingto come up – when anything is going to come up. Once it’s gone, youwon’t ever get it back.”

Board president Doug Moak, who recently obtained the resolutionfrom one of the many Adams and Franklin County meetings, saidthat’s why supervisors should do all they can to support thetrack’s existence – to a point.

“If it gets a little more complicated, to be honest, I don’tknow if we want to get into the rail business or not,” he said.