March 10, 2009
JACKSON -- State senators asked tough questions Monday and heard opposition to a House-passed bill to provide $14 million to renovate the old Columbus & Greenville Railway line that''s been closed between West Point and Greenwood since 2001.
However, backers of the legislation said rebuilding the railroad would provide a job-producing economic stimulus and a much-needed transportation artery to help industries in north central Mississippi from Lowndes County to the Mississippi River.
"This project is shovel-ready. It''s ready to go and would employ hundreds of construction jobs and would generate a lot of economic development just in the rehabilitation of the rail line itself," C&G Railway chief Roger Bell said.
The Senate Highways and Transportation Committee held a hearing Monday on legislation to give $14 million to the North Central Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority. It''s leading the effort to renovate the 92-mile rail line.
The House last month passed the bill with hopes state money could be combined with federal dollars to fulfill the $70 million needed to rebuild the C&G tracks.
The railroad has been closed since 2001, when flooding washed out a Carroll County bridge. Two other bridges have also since collapsed from high water. Repairs would enable the C&G line to continue uninterrupted to Greenville on the Mississippi River.
However, a competing railroad is against this. Kansas City Southern Railway "has serious concerns about government subsidizing a railroad," KCS representative Betty Collins told the Senate committee.
However, if the money is provided, it shouldn''t be reserved just for the C&G line, she said. KCS and others should be allowed to seek the funds to improve their rails.
Reopening the C&G railroad is being promoted partly to give the Severstal steel mill in Lowndes County a direct east-west shipping link to the Mississippi River at Greenville.
However, Collins said KCS already is serving the mill and provides access to the Mississippi River via a line going south to Vicksburg.
Reconstructing the C&G rail line from West Point to Greenwood would spark industrial growth in counties along that corridor, said Cynthia Wilson, of Eupora, who chairs the North Central Mississippi Railroad Authority.
"This area is very depressed. We''ve lost an awful lot of jobs and industries. With the demand for rail-line service, it would help us to be able to more effectively compete," Wilson said.
The economic stimulus program President Obama enacted last month does provide money for railroads, but it''s for Amtrak and high-speed railroad development. No federal money has been specifically earmarked for freight lines such as C&G, said Steven Edwards, director of intermodal planning at the state Department of Transportation.
However, getting the state Legislature to put up some money could attract more federal funds for the C&G line, Wilson said. "It legitimizes us and says our state has confidence in us," she said.
Senators said they don''t know yet what they will do with House Bill 1713 to fund the railroad project. Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, said it could be revised to make the money available to any railroad on a competitive basis.