Biz punches above weight in battle w/ NC Railroad

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Mo Howland, proprietor of Shop Class at 406 Guion Street in New Bern, is fighting the North Carolina Railroad Company’s effort to drastically expand a rail corridor easement.

Mo Howland, proprietor of Shop Class at 406 Guion Street in New Bern, is fighting the North Carolina Railroad Company’s effort to drastically expand a rail corridor easement.

By Mo Howland | News Opinion

NEW BERN – North Carolina residents own a railroad –  well, sort of. In 1849 the North Carolina State legislature authorized a private/public partnership to build an east to west railroad connecting the state. Today we have a 317-mile rail corridor that stretches from Charlotte through New Bern (down Hancock Street) to the Port Terminal in Morehead City.

In 1998, all outstanding shares of the railroad were purchased by the State of North Carolina making North Carolina Railroad Company a private business corporation owned by the State. But don’t expect a dividend check anytime soon.

State-Owned Enterprises are not uncommon and are typically found in the transportation and utilities sectors. What is uncommon about the North Carolina Railroad Company is its lack of accountability. The Company’s Board of Directors is appointed by the Governor. Unlike a State agency, the North Carolina Railroad Company is not accountable to the Citizens of North Carolina.

Unlike a publicly traded company, the North Carolina Railroad Company has minimal reporting requirements.  As for that dividend check, in 2000 the North Carolina legislature established by statute that Company’s dividends paid to the State were required to be used by the NC Department of Transportation for improvements to the North Carolina Railroad Company line. How did the North Carolina Railroad Company receive such sweetheart deals? Let’s look at how much the Company spends on lobbying the North Carolina State Legislature. Oops! (That is also undisclosed.)

The Company’s stated mission  is to: “To benefit North Carolina by aggressively leveraging the unique strengths and capabilities of the North Carolina Railroad Company. Hmm, aggressively leveraging?? North Carolina Railroad Company also claims: “We work closely with local, regional and state government and we partner closely with the economic development community.”

Are the citizens of New Bern feeling the upside of their “economic development,” or the downside?

ShopClass-NB.com, a community do-it-yourself shop and training facility, established in a 100 year-old building is feeling that “aggressive leveraging.” It has taken the form of legal action initiated by the North Carolina Railroad Company.

A 2017 survey commissioned by the North Carolina Railroad Company determined that previous surveys (even those conducted by the Company dating back to the 1800s) are all wrong.

From Dunn to Queen Street instead of a 100-foot easement (50 feet on each side of the railroad’s centerline), the Company is now claiming a 200-foot easement.

In fact, the Company’s red ‘Sharpie’  line now goes through two 100 year-old homes,  a 100-year-old commercial building, two businesses, and a lot owned by the City of New Bern with a chain link fence and community garden.

If Shop Class agrees to the Company’s demands,  the value of our building and property is greatly reduced. In addition, the North Carolina Railroad Company also wants Shop Class to pay a $4,000 a year fee to use Shop Class property, and purchase insurance coverage indemnifying the Company.

If Shop Class does not agree, “…North Carolina Railroad Company can immediately initiate legal action for the removal of the Encroachments, including the building, storage shed and fence…,” according the Company’s local attorneys at Ward and Smith, P.A. That’s not especially neighborly.

So, this begs the question, why? The North Carolina Railroad Company does not need an extra $4,000. They don’t need another old building to watch deteriorate like they did with the New Bern Train Depot. Are they planning high-speed rail down Hancock Street? Are they expanding the already environmentally questionable rail yard between two historic neighborhoods? Are they planning to ship larger and more toxic cargo through New Bern? Or, are they just flexing muscle because they know a small community-based business does not have the resources to fight off a powerful state-owned enterprise?

Editor’s note: Please help! Compass readers should call Gov. Roy Cooper and other state and local elected officials. For updates, e-mail mohowland@gmail.com