County agrees to help city with grant

Published 12:07 am Tuesday, September 26, 2017

NATCHEZ — County supervisors verbally committed Friday to helping the city financially with potential railroad maintenance if aldermen would stay the course on a grant to improve the area’s lone rail line.

Despite the previous city administration signing on as the sponsor of the $10.7 million grant for railroad improvement, city leaders earlier this month got cold feet and asked county leaders and subsequently also planned to ask the Southwest Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority to serve as sponsors.

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.

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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.

The crux of the issue for city leaders is maintenance of the rail line could potentially fall on the grant sponsor’s shoulders.

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

On the other side of the issue is Natchez Railway. Company leadership have urged the city to stay the course, as changing sponsors could cause a longer than 6-month delay, as the Federal Railroad Administration would have to approve the change.

Natchez Railway officials have said the company is losing money on the line because the bridges are not able to support fully loaded railcars.

Adams County Board of Supervisors President Mike Lazarus said the company is not just losing money on the the relatively short, 60-mile stretch of track that runs from the Natchez-Adams County Port to connecting lines in Brookhaven.

“They are losing money on the 1,000 miles from when it leaves Brookhaven to wherever they are going — as far away as Canada,” Lazarus said. “They want their cars to be fully loaded when they leave here.”

District 5 Supervisor Calvin Butler said he understands the grant was obtained under the past city administration and not all of the current city board was in place at that time. With that said, Butler said he still thinks the city needs to move forward.

“Once it has gone through, you can’t transfer in the middle,” Butler said. “If it comes time that we need to help out, no problem. But I think the city needs to move forward.”

Lazarus said Natchez cannot lose the railroad and the city does not need to be playing around with this.

“This is too important,” Lazarus said. “I don’t mind signing a line with them at the end of the day (for maintenance). But right now, they are responsible. They need to keep moving forward.”

District 2 Supervisor David Carter also said he spoke with leaders of the railroad company, and they still want this project to move forward as soon as possible.

“We need to give the city some assurance we will back them up (should something happen to the railroad company),” Carter said.

District 3 Supervisor Angela Hutchins and District 4 Supervisor Ricky Gray also said they would be willing to help the city.

“I support what the majority of the board wants to do,” Gray said.

County Administer Joe Murray said another concern the city has is administering the grant.

Lazarus said Community Development Director James Johnston applied for the grant and he can administer it. Lazarus said if he does not agree to administer it, then the Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District could.

Though the county did not have a document Friday, Lazarus said supervisors would sign one if the city put something reasonable in front of them.

“We don’t want to lose that railroad.”