Grant for railroad to be delayed?

Published 12:33 am Friday, September 8, 2017

NATCHEZ — City and county leaders took no action Thursday on changing sponsorship for a $10.7 million, federal railroad grant, but agreed to meet with the multi-county railroad authority to request they sponsor the grant.

The grant would provide upgrades to the rail line between Natchez and Brookhaven allowing railcars to be fully loaded. At the moment, fully loaded cars exceed the weight capacity of the line, causing railcars to be moved only partially loaded.

Natchez Railway Inc. General Manager Aaron Parsons said delays with the grant are causing the company to lose money by not being able to move maximum loads from the Natchez-Adams County Port due to the capacity of the bridges on the line.

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Natchez Railway owns the approximately 60-mile stretch of rail.

In July 2016, the City of Natchez received word it had been awarded an approximately $10.7 million grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER Discretionary Grant program. Natchez Railway is expected to provide approximately $3.6 million in matching funds for the project, bringing total repairs and improvements to the railway to approximately $14.3 million.

Despite signing on as the grant’s sponsor originally, the city recently has gotten cold feet about the grant after learning the city would be potentially liable for maintenance responsibilities if Natchez Railway failed.

The railroad company is responsible for maintenance, but theoretically could go bankrupt or shut down, leaving the city with some liability.

The maintenance agreement is for 20 years.

Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said the ideal sponsor for the grant is the Southwest Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority. The authority, with representatives from entities including Adams, Franklin and Lincoln counties as well as Natchez, was created in 2011 potentially to save the railroad if its owners ever abandoned it.

“(The railroad authority) probably should have applied for the grant in the beginning,” Russ said. “But the previous (city) administration did not want to do that.”

Russ was referring to former Natchez Mayor Butch Brown’s administration. Brown’s administration applied and lobbied for the grant, which was received in current Mayor Darryl Grennell’s administration.

The city initially asked Adams County to assume responsibility as the grant sponsor.

County Administrator Joe Murray previously had expressed concern switching sponsors could impact whether the grant was funded or not. However, Murray said Thursday he had spoken with Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District planner Allen Laird.

Murray said Laird indicated sponsors rarely change, but it had been done.

Parsons said the railroad company is trying to improve the line so they can market heavier loads.

“Without marketing bigger loads, we are out of the running and it is putting us further and further behind,” Parsons said. “At this point, the railroad is losing money.”

If the city went ahead with the grant, the railroad company could make repairs to the line more quickly and hopefully begin turning a profit sooner, Parsons said.

He said delaying to wait on the railroad authority would delay the process longer.

And when the sponsor is changed, Parsons said the Federal Railroad Administration would have to approve the change. Parsons said that could delay the process by more months.

“It could take another month, it could take six,” Parsons said.

Parsons said the company does not plan to abandon the line, so maintenance would be on Natchez Railway.

“We just want to get moving to get the railroad upgraded,” he said.

Russ said the railroad authority meets quarterly, but could call a special meeting.

Grennell asked Russ to set up that meeting so the city could request the railroad authority take sponsorship.