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Franklin County joins railroad authority

NATCHEZ — Franklin County locked arms with neighboring Adams County Monday, ready to fight, if necessary, to keep the lone railroad line serving the two counties operating.

In a 5-0 vote, the Franklin County Board of Supervisors approved joining the Southwest Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority.

The railroad authority is an entity created earlier this year through state legislation and the Adams County Board of Supervisors’ own unanimous vote.

Monday’s vote was important, Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said, because it showed solidarity and regionalism.

“It’s a big step to have both Adams and Franklin together. It makes it officially a regional authority,” he said. “The Franklin County Board of Supervisors and all of those that were there were highly supportive of the efforts to begin to discuss the long-term options for the rail and put us in a better position (to keep the railroad viable).”

The 66-mile stretch of rail runs from the Adams County Port through Adams, Franklin and Lincoln counties before connecting to a Canadian National rail line in Brookhaven.

The railroad has been a source of worry and concern since Canadian National sold the rail line to newly formed entity, Natchez Railway LLC, in 2009.

The new company has deep ties with a railroad salvage company. Although publicly the company has said it has no intention of scrapping the line, some rail customers and sources close to the rail have suggested the company’s actions indicate a different strategy.

Railroad customers and business leaders have said high fees to customers on the line indicate a desire to run off business, potentially to support the company’s possible argument that the line cannot be made profitable, which would help support any argument for scrapping the line.

Russ said the formation of the regional railroad authority laid the groundwork necessary, should the region need to purchase the railroad.

Such a move would likely come if Natchez Railway LLC began abandonment procedures with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the federal entity that regulates railroads, Russ said.

When Canadian National announced the sale to Natchez Railway LLC in May 2009, CN said that the sale terms guaranteed rail service would continue for the two years following the sale.

Exact terms of the sale were not publicly disclosed, however, if a mandatory two-year period were built into the sales contract that agreement likely would expire in June.

“(The authority) is something that we are doing as a protective measure in the case of abandonment or the unwillingness (by Natchez Railway) to offer competitive rates toward their current customers,” Russ said. “If an abandonment happens, we would be able to purchase it through a net liquidated value.”

One of the railroad’s biggest customers, American Railcar Industries Inc., which operates a railcar repair facility in Bude, had several representatives on Monday’s Franklin County Board of Supervisor’s meeting.

John Ward, plant manager of ARI’s facility in Bude, said the unanimous support was encouraging to his company and to other businesses.

“It shows how Franklin County recognizes the importance of a viable rail line that supports Southwest Mississippi and how that ties into existing jobs and any potential future jobs,” Ward said.

The next step for the railroad authority is to reach out to Lincoln County — where the railroad connects with another rail line — and seek their involvement, something that Russ said would likely occur early next month.

“I think once they understand the gravity of the situation, they will participate with us in some form,” Russ said, adding that at this point, involvement in the authority does not commit any of the partners financially in any way.

Although the railroad line in question is not the only railroad into Lincoln County it does affect the county, Ward said, adding that some of ARI’s 90 to 100 employees likely shop in Lincoln County.

After working to secure Lincoln County, the next step is taking the authority from paper to reality, Russ said.

“In the next 60 days or so, we’ll hopefully be asking those who are in the authority to appoint their representatives to the authority,” he said.

In addition to Adams and Franklin county, a number of other local governments and other entities have issued support for the railroad authority including:

City of Natchez, Amite County Board of Supervisors, Town of Gloster, Claiborne County Board of Supervisors, City of Port Gibson, City of Meadville, Town of Roxie, Lincoln County Board of Supervisors, City of Brookhaven, Wilkinson County Board of Supervisors, Concordia Parish Police Jury, City of Vidalia, Concordia Economic and Industrial Development District, Natchez Inc., Mississippi Public Service Southern District Commissioner Leonard L. Bentz, Mississippi Public Service Central District Commissioner Lynn Posey.

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