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Legislation would give county authority to buy railroad

NATCHEZ — If the future of the Natchez to Brookhaven rail line appears to be headed downhill, local leaders want to be prepared to back it up.

Area legislators took action last week to make sure this engine has a reverse switch.

Sens. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, Kelvin Butler, D-Magnolia and Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Brookhaven, introduced Senate Bill No. 2335 that, if passed, will allow the Adams County Board of Supervisors to create or join a county or regional railroad authority.

The authority would then be able to own the railroad and its assets and levy fees associated with the rail, Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said.

“It’s simply a governmental entity that has the ability to have multiple counties have jurisdiction over a rail line,” Russ said.

But, at this point, planning for the authority is only creating a backup plan, Russ said.

The rail line is owned by Natchez Railway, whose president has maintained the company has no intentions of abandoning the railroad.

However, many of the Natchez Railway executives also work for the scrapping and supply company A&K Railroad Materials.

Natchez Railway vice president Michael Van Wagenen has said the companies are two separate businesses.

Russ said he has had good communications with Natchez Railway since becoming the Natchez Inc. executive director.

“We talk with them a lot; they’re involved in our discussion.

“They understand we’ve got a business to run on our side as well, but they’ve maintained they have no intentions of abandoning or leaving operation on that line,” Russ said.

If the company did seek to abandon the line, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board would inform the public and advertisements would run in the local newspaper, Russ said.

At that point, anyone interested in buying the line before it was scrapped would have only between 90 to 100 days, he said.

That’s why it’s necessary to work on legislation to create a railroad authority now, Dearing said.

“Hopefully, we will never have to use it,” Dearing said. “But if we ever have to use it, it will be there for us.”

The bill allows for the authority be created under short notice to buy the railroad.

“We’re making sure we’re not caught sitting on our hands,” Russ said.

Dearing said the legislation should have no trouble making it through the senate and the house.

“Usually local and private legislation will be supported,” Dearing said. “If it does not affect you, you will usually support it. I think it will have good support.”

Dearing said the next step is to call a meeting during the first part of this week to vote on the bill.

“We will get it on the floor, vote, and then pass it on to the house,” Dearing said. “And then hope it has a smooth passage to the governor.”

The passage of the bill — whether ever needed or not — is sending a positive message, Russ said.

Collaborative action taken by all communities affected by the 66-mile railroad sends a message of strength and interest to future industries, he said.

“It is also a signal to businesses on that line and those considering locating here that the region is committed to provide quality rail service,” Russ said.

In the event that the authority does purchase the railroad, it would probably hire experienced short line rail operators to handle its operation, Russ said.

Keeping the railroad is a very high priority, but seeing its success under the current owner is preferable, Russ said.

“Your ultimate goal is to increase volume and traffic and never have to exercise that option there,” he said.

Russ said regardless of the amount of traffic the railroad receives currently, it is vital to have in existence as an option to lure future industries.

“An estimated average of 20 percent of economic development projects require rail,” Russ said.

“To automatically take yourself out of a fifth of the projects is just not something we’re interested in.”

Russ said he too is confident the bill will pass in the Senate and House of Representatives.

“There are no hiccups or opposition to it,” Russ said.

Adams County Board of Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said the bill has received overwhelming support from the boards of supervisors in the affected counties.

Grennell said he is pleased with the cooperation of all of the counties — Adams, Franklin and Lincoln — directly affected by the rail and several neighboring counties plus Concordia Parish, but not surprised by it.

“It was something that I expected,” he said.

“Once the rail line became an issue, it was automatic to want to come to the table to see how we could try to save it.”

Grennell pointed to American Railcar Industries in Franklin County as representative of how important the railroad is to the region’s future and present.

ARI employees more than 100 people in Bude and is the town’s biggest employer.

“From Concordia Parish to Adams County, Jefferson County, Franklin County and Wilkinson County, we all need that rail line because without it you close the door to future industrial growth for this area,” Grennell said.

Russ said the passing of the bill would hopefully assure everyone the railroad will be around for the long haul.

“In a nutshell, that rail has been in operation in 105 years, and we plan on having it in operation for another 105 years providing service to Southwest Mississippi,” Russ said.

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