Supervisors hear railroad authority pitch

Published 6:00 pm Wednesday, April 6, 2011

After assuming a noncommittal stance previously, Lincoln Countysupervisors Monday took a small step toward the possibility ofjoining a regional railroad authority.

Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez, Inc., spoke tosupervisors about plans to form the authority to oversee the66-mile railroad between Brookhaven and Natchez in the event it isever abandoned by its current owners. He quickly addressed one ofLincoln County supervisors’ main concerns about authoritymembership.

“It is not in any way, shape or form are we asking for anyfunds,” Russ said.

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Russ said having the authority would provide a mechanism foracquiring and maintaining the line, as well as allowing acollective voice to speak to government rail oversight entities andfor line customers. Of the 66-mile-long line, 15.8 miles are inLincoln County, 33 in Franklin County and the remainder in AdamsCounty.

“We see this line as a vital part of Southwest Mississippi andthis region,” Russ said.

Russ said the line has been in place for 105 years.

“The last seven have not been the best of times for this line,”said Russ, mentioning declining usage totals over the years.

During International Paper’s Natchez plant’s peak, usage wasaround 20,000 cars a year and was at 12,000 when it closed. Now,Russ said, the line sees around 3,000 cars a year.

Natchez Railway LLC, which is closely associated with Utah’sA&K Railroad Materials, a large railroad scrap company,purchased the line from Canadian National in 2009, with anagreement to continue to operate the line for two years. Thatprovision expires in June.

Natchez Railway officials have said the line is safe and theyhave no intentions of shutting it down.

Nevertheless, regional officials are moving forward with formingthe authority. Adams County and Franklin County supervisors havesignaled their intentions to join.

Russ said Monday they are in the process of filing paperwork and”organizational minutiae” as far as who will be members. Once thatis done, final paperwork will be filed with the Secretary ofState’s Office.

For Lincoln County to be a member, the first step is a publichearing. Supervisors scheduled that for Wednesday, April 20, at 10a.m., after which time they could approve a resolution to join.

Cliff Brumfield, executive vice president of theBrookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce, lobbied forsupervisors to join. He pointed out a number of individuals whowork for area industries that depend on the rail line and the needto have rail access for the new Linbrook Business Park.

“To keep that artery there is of great importance,” Brumfieldsaid.

District Three Supervisor Nolan Earl Williamson expressedconcerns about making sure authority document wording was correctto prevent any unintended liabilities for member counties.

District Two Supervisor Bobby J. Watts, though, was supportive.He said it may be two, three, four or five years down the road, butthe area will need the rail line at some point in the future.

“I think it would be very destructive to this part of the stateto abandon that line,” Watts said.