Supervisors still on fence over rail plan

Published 7:00 pm Thursday, February 17, 2011

A bill that would allow Adams County to form a regional team andbuy the railroad running from Brookhaven to the Mississippi Riveris expected to get the governor’s signature, but the players on theproposed team don’t see eye to eye.

Senate Bill 2335 would allow Adams County to create or enter into aregional railroad authority with Franklin and Lincoln counties forthe purpose of buying the 66-mile line that stretches fromBrookhaven to Natchez, giving the three-county partnership thepower to own and operate the railroad and impose fees for itsusage. The legislation passed the House and Senate without a singledissenting vote and is awaiting the governor’s signature intolaw.

The bill’s likely success is good news for supporters of theNatchez-led effort, but interest in the plan from Lincoln Countyisn’t as strong.

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“From our county’s standpoint, it would be a matter of cost andbenefits,” said Lincoln County Board of Supervisors President DougMoak. “We would like to help our neighboring counties out as muchas we can, but cost would be a major issue with us.”

The authority is being created because elected and economic leadersacross the three counties are worried railroad owner NatchezRailway, LLC, could scrap the tracks this summer and shut offNatchez’s access to the main Canadian National line that runs toNew Orleans and Chicago through Brookhaven. If the line wereclosed, it would likewise cut Lincoln County’s Linbrook BusinessPark off from the Port of Natchez.

The LLC – which is closely associated with Utah’s A&K RailroadMaterials, a large railroad scrap company – bought the line fromCanadian National in 2009 for an undisclosed sum, signing anagreement requiring the line remain open for two years after thesale. The agreement ends in June.

Despite regional leaders’ fears, Natchez Railway, LLC, maintainsthe line is safe. Company vice president Michael Van Wagenen saidthe passage of SB 2335 is of little concern to him.

“It really doesn’t mean anything to me because we don’t have anyintentions of shutting down the line,” he said.

Van Wagenen said the two-year agreement to operate the railroad wasauthored by CN to give communities on the line a level of comfort.He said that plan had backfired.

“The dilemma is it gives the impression that after two years it’sgoing to shut down. But we have no intention of shutting it down,”he said.

The loss of the railroad would have much less of an impact onLincoln County. Natchez Railway’s ownership of the east-west linebegins far to the west of Linbrook, and Canadian National stillowns the spur connecting the industrial site to the mainnorth-south railway.

“It won’t influence us like it will them. We’re on the fence,” Moaksaid. “We’d have to look at the rates for the authority. Would itbe proportionally based on track mileage? When I think about this,I think about the big bridges over the tributaries between here andNatchez, and I would need to know what it costs to maintain thosebridges.”

So far, Lincoln County supervisors have signed a petition ofsupport for the rail’s preservation but made clear they were notcommitting funds. Cliff Brumfield, executive vice president of theBrookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce, agrees with thatdecision.

“So far, (Lincoln County supervisors) have not been asked formoney. The group from Adams County has done the right thing inworking to pave the way for the authority to be created,” hesaid.

Brumfield said it is important to preserve the railroad, however,in the event industries requiring port access seek out SouthwestMississippi in the future.

“All indicators show that rail will continue to be a viable if notmore attractive option for transportation than it is now,” he said.”For Southwest Mississippi to lose the corridor between CanadianNational and the river would not be in anyone’s best interest.”