Bicycle path to be rolled out along 61 South|[08/27/2008]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Vicksburg will move ahead to create a bicycle path along 4.25 miles of former railroad right-of-way that extends south from the river bridges with closing documents being finalized this week, City Attorney Nancy Thomas said Tuesday.

Completing the transaction also will result in city ownership of the partially dismantled Glass Road trestle near the end of the route, Thomas said.

The plan for a cycling path comes as part of a years-long evolution of interests involving the city, private industry along the right-of-way, the Legislature, Kansas City Southern Railway, a federal regulatory agency, a Maryland investor and casino developers.

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About $1 million deposited in an escrow account over the past 16 months by Minnesota-based Lakes Entertainment, the casino company, will finance the city’s purchase. The casino company initially put up the money to purchase the right-of-way from KCS, with the Legislature giving the city permission to serve as a conduit for the transaction.

At the time that deal was made in April 2007, city officials tied the fate of the casino and cycling projects together, indicating one plan was for the casino to use a portion of the land, leaving the rest to be available to the city. If the casino didn’t develop, the city would get all the land and still build the bicycle trail.

About $1 million deposited in an escrow account over the past 16 months by Minnesota-based Lakes Entertainment, a casino company, will finance the city’s purchase.Lakes told state regulators two months earlier that the right-of-way was the main holdup on building its palatial, $200 million casino. Without it, access to its Warrenton area site west of U.S. 61 South would be across the right-of-way, even though rail traffic on the spur line was very limited.

“It was a benefit to Lakes to not have the rail there,” Thomas said.

Thomas indicated Tuesday the casino and bike path involve separate pieces of land and have progressed independently – indicating the two projects may yet coexist.

In the past year, Lakes has purchased 115.2 acres for the project, in a pre-construction phase for nearly four years.

While Lakes has approval of its site from the Mississippi Gaming Commission, the firm must present a financing package to the three-member regulatory panel to begin building. A two-year deadline from site approval to submitting financing plans has been waived by state regulators, meaning the company may still seek final state approval to become the city’s sixth casino. Lakes officials did not return calls Tuesday.

A formal abandonment of the rail lines began late last year as Vicksburg-based Foam Packaging offered to purchase the right-of-way in order to preserve the tracks, which provide the primary means for it to receive its raw materials. Federal regulators said preservation of rail service trumped the city’s plan, but after six months of legal maneuvering, the Foam Packaging pulled out of the deal in May because of concerns over time frames on title transfers and a strain of its relationship with Maryland-based short line rail operator James Riffin.

Developments have also included Warren County’s aborted demolition of a low-clearance rail overpass at Glass Road. Perched over one of only two access routes to riverside industries south of town, the trestle’s 9-foot clearance has been an impediment for ambulances and fire trucks for years. Work by Road Department crews to take down the brush-laden structure was halted when county supervisors learned of the abandonment proceedings and wished to avoid any violation of federal law even though the trestle supports are on county right-of-way.

Legal staff with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board left that issue as a local one when it issued a Notice of Interim Trail Use to the city in June. Earlier decisions by STB during the process freed KCS to sue the county for damages stemming from the partial demolition if it so chose.

At the moment, Thomas said, no time frame has been worked out for creating the bicycle trail.