A multi-county environmental assessment by the Rail Authority of East Mississippi (RAEM) could pave the way for future transportation opportunities in Neshoba County, particularly in the timber industry, officials said.

After almost four years of scrutinizing market demand and analyzing economic data, the RAEM is set to initiate its comprehensive feasibility study for the development of the East Mississippi Intermodal Railroad. The 56-mile shortline track will connect the Meridian Southern Railroad near Waynesboro to the Mississippi Export Railroad near Lucedale and create a continuous rail line between Pascagoula and Meridian.

That access to the Mississippi Coast could very well lead to more industrial opportunities for Neshoba County, specifically in the transportation of timber, County Administrator Benjie Coats said.

Stanley Salter, chairman of the Industrial Development Authority of Neshoba County, agreed, noting that while the railway would not directly affect the county, it would provide more options for industries here.

"It would affect local plants or future industries," Salter said. "It would provide an alternative to get products to a port to be shipped, and that option could be a selling point to future industries."

While the environmental assessment is just one step in a larger process of approving the construction of the railway, the finished product would provide an easier means of exporting timber to the Gulf Coast.

The most important component of the feasibility study is an environmental assessment to determine if the project meets federal environmental standards.

"Before we can begin construction, we have to gain clearance from the Federal Rail Administration and prove the project complies with environmental regulations," said Larry Gandy, RAEM's Executive Director. "It's an expensive endeavor, but it's an enormous milestone for the project."

The Mississippi Legislature provided $1.5 million to pay for the environmental assessment. These funds are being matched with local funds and federal grants to complete the feasibility study.

Tony Chancelor, Clarke County's representative to RAEM, said the executive board's goal is to be as thorough as possible to ensure federal agency clearance. "We have to make sure that the project is as unobtrusive as possible to the environment. This means we'll have scientists and archaeologists walking the entire length of the project area and making determinations of potential impacts to wetlands, wildlife, cultural resources and the human environment," Chancelor said.

Other measures associated with the study will include public meetings to provide opportunities for the general public to voice opinions regarding the proposed rail line. Announcements of these meetings will be made in advance to ensure ample opportunity for public input.

"Our goal is to restore East Mississippi to continuous rail service and generate new economic development opportunities and jobs.  It will be a boon to the forestry industry, and I expect direct access to the Meridian Rail Hub from ports of Pascagoula and Mobile will be extremely attractive for all commerce," said Gil Carmichael, Lauderdale County's representative to the RAEM executive board.