Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Orangeburg seeks $278m for Charleston railroad plan

By MOLLY PARKER, Charleston Regional Business Journal Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Orangeburg County has filed a request seeking $278 million in federal funds to help implement a controversial rail plan that calls for construction of an intermodal facility on the former Navy base in North Charleston and running trains through the base’s northern end.

The proposal to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn also requests money for a separate intermodal facility on the Macalloy property on the base’s southern end, several rail overpasses in North Charleston and a rail line running into Orangeburg County, where Jafza International is planning to build a massive logistics park.

“Orangeburg and Jafza understand that, unless this issue is addressed and corrected in Charleston, their project is in trouble,” said Jeff McWhorter, president of S.C. Public Railways, a division of the S.C. Department of Commerce that would purchase the Orangeburg rail line, according to the proposal.

Though only a portion of the requested funding is for projects in Orangeburg, McWhorter said, “That was the avenue by which we ended up pursuing money for Charleston, as well.”

The proposal specifies the locations for the rail yards, but McWhorter said he doubts that a federal funding commitment would be contingent upon sticking to those plans. Furthermore, he said, funds were submitted for both rail yards with the understanding “that one or the other would work.”

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey has promised a legal fight against any state entity that attempts to force rail through the northern end of the former Navy base.

Last week, Summey said he was frustrated that he was not consulted about the federal funding request.

“This is one of those things that annoys you. People don’t talk to you,” Summey said. “I think it’s a little unusual the subject wasn’t broached with us. If the two locations are off the Navy base and in the south end, we’d be more than happy to work with them. I would think they would at least want to talk with us, get our opinion, what-have-you.”

The S.C. State Ports Authority is building a new container terminal on the former Navy base property, and the Noisette Co. has designed a live-work community there — and Summey is adamant that rail not run through that city-backed business and residential development.

The aim of the proposal, McWhorter said, is to secure enough federal funds to build rail yards that would service both of the region’s Class 1 railroads — CSX and Norfolk Southern — and provide them equal access to the Port of Charleston’s customers.

Gregg Robinson, executive director of the Orangeburg County Development Commission, called the rail plan, and the request for federal funds to implement it, “a regional concept to a statewide problem.” The proposal was presented to Clyburn, the House majority whip, who helped spearhead the Jafza project, and to other members of the S.C. congressional delegation, Robinson said.

“The statewide problem is we do not have adequate rail currently and we need to improve it,” Robinson said.

Orangeburg officials also want to ensure that both CSX and Norfolk Southern can service the Jafza project, which includes plans for millions of square feet of warehousing and manufacturing space in that county.

A portion of the requested federal funds is for the potential purchase by S.C. Public Railways of CSX’s line running between Creston and Harleyville adjacent to the Jafza property.

If S.C. Public Railways owns the line, the companies at Jafza could access CSX and Norfolk Southern services through his agency, McWhorter said. As it stands, CSX is “not agreeable to that,” McWhorter said, but the federal money was requested in case the railroad company changes its mind and decides to negotiate.

Robinson said his opinion is not “relevant at this time” about where the rail yards should be situated in the Charleston region.

“What I’m trying to accomplish is of mutual benefit to a number of different parties, and we’re working via S.C. Public Railways to get this accomplished,” Robinson said. “This is a team effort to try to improve our overall approach to be able to handle business.”

Robinson said now is not the time to point fingers about why this plan was not put into place earlier.

“Let’s move forward,” he said. “We know it’s a problem; we have to collectively come together and figure out how to best solve the problem. We are going to continue to lose market share if we don’t fix it.”

On the Web: www.charlestonbusiness.com

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