Counties mull railroad authority

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, November 7, 2010

Lincoln County supervisors last week made well known theirapprehensiveness over the prospect of investing taxpayers’ money tokeep the east-west railroad between Natchez and Brookhavenopen.

Turns out, that’s exactly what they may be asked to do.

A slew of government and economic leaders whose territory the66-mile line passes through are laying the groundwork for theestablishment of a government railroad authority, with the aim ofpurchasing the tracks from Natchez Railway, LLC, in the event thecurrent owner abandons the line. It’s unclear how the authoritywould be set up and run or how much the purchase would cost, butthe top officials concerned with the railroad are including LincolnCounty in their plans.

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“The actual authority, as I understand it, would be the formationof those connected to the line – Adams, Franklin and Lincoln wouldactually form the authority if they choose to do so,” said ChandlerRuss, executive director of Natchez, Inc., that city’s newesteconomic development group. “As far as sitting down and talking toboards of supervisors about the formation of the authority, thatwill come in the weeks and months ahead.”

Lincoln County supervisors last Monday signed the resolution allthe involved governments were urged to sign, a symbolic documentthat signals support for the continued operation of the line. Theyalso included a disclaimer that clearly stated the county was notmaking a financial commitment toward the tracks or the proposedauthority.

For supervisors, the outlook has not changed much in sixdays.

“I don’t want to turn my back on the other counties, but we’d haveto look long and hard before we made a decision to go into therailroad business,” said board president Doug Moak. “I don’t thinkwe’re ready to put a whole lot of money out, and that’s why wepassed our resolution the way we did.”

Moak pointed out Lincoln County is in a different situation thanAdams or Franklin counties, which need the railroad to stayconnected to the Port of Natchez as a tool to lure new business andindustry into the area.

But the very limited traffic on the east-west line rarely – if ever- comes as far as Brookhaven, and Lincoln County has access toCanadian National’s nation-spanning north-south line, whichconnects to the Port of New Orleans in the south and Chicago in thenorth. Likewise, the county’s star investment – the LinbrookBusiness Park industrial site – is connected to Canadian National’sline by a short east-west spur not included in the sale to NatchezRailway, LLC.

Moak admitted having a second port connection would be beneficialto local industrial recruiting efforts, but the line is not nearlythe deal-breaker to Lincoln County as it is to Adams and Franklincounties. He said the county might consider an investment in theproposed authority, but not likely a weighty one.

“There might would be a threshold, but for us it would have to be alot less than what the other counties (would have),” Moak said. “Wedon’t have as much involved in it.”

Russ said the authority could be formed without Lincoln County’sparticipation, saying supervisors’ disclaimer in the supportingresolution was the right thing to do at this point.

He did, however, talk up the importance of the county retainingaccess to the east-west line and speculated on Canadian National’scontinued maintenance of the short spur to Linbrook.

“Access to the Mississippi River would definitely be a sellingpoint for Linbrook,” Russ said. “At the end of the day, there areno guarantees from Canadian National … if the traffic’s notthere.”

Russ said further action on the authority would likely occur withinthe next 60 days.

Southwest Mississippi leaders are investigating the prospect ofcreating an authority to purchase a private enterprise because offears the railroad could be taken up and scrapped next summer. Theowners of Natchez Railway, LLC, also own Salt Lake City’s A&KRailroad Materials, one of the country’s largest railroad salvageoperations.

Repeated attempts by the railroad’s owners to assure SouthwestMississippi leaders there are no immediate plans to scrap the linehave not soothed local fears. Natchez Railway, LLC, purchased theline from Canadian National in early 2009 under the condition thetracks be maintained and operated by the purchaser for at least twoyears. That two-year deadline is up in spring or early summer,2011.

Natchez Railway Vice President Michael Van Wagenen could not bereached for comment.

Russ said the formation of an authority is a just-in-caseprocedure.

“We’re just making sure … that if actions are taken for anabandonment proceeding there’s a vehicle in place to act swiftlyand decisively to maintain that line,” Russ said. “We want nothingmore than for that railway to be successfully operated and be aviable business for Natchez Railway. That’s the best-case scenariofor everybody.”

Russ and other government and economic leaders agree the railroadis an important piece of Southwest Mississippi’s future industrialrecruiting efforts.

Hopes are that businesses and industries will see value in arailroad connecting to CN’s nation-spanning north-south line on oneend and the Port of Natchez on the other. Railroads, highways andairports are considered important modes of transportationconsidered by industrial officials when looking for a community inwhich to expand.

Currently, the biggest customer on the line is Bude’s AmericanRailcar Industries, a massive railcar repair and refurbishing plantthat employs around 100 people. ARI officials are up in arms overtariffs Natchez Railway, LLC, has imposed on cars coming in and outof their facility – raised from $500 to $700 in 2010 – they say arehurting the company’s bottom line.

ARI officials say the tariffs may force them to leave Bude. Thescrapping of the railroad would make that a certainty.