Knott predicted that if the state wee to proceed with the massive condemnation necessary to locate a container transfer facility at the Clemson site or Noisette, the costs could easily exceed $300 million, an amount significantly greater than the state would have to spend on the facilities if they built them on sites they didn’t have to condemn.
For North Charleston, S.C. Mayor Keith Summey the question of whether trains should access the $600 million cargo container terminal currently under development at the former Charleston Navy base from the north is a non-starter: He’s based his city’s redevelopment plans on a signed, legal agreement with the South Carolina State Ports Authority, and he intends to make it stick.
State rail officials, however, believe the mayor’s preferred alternative — a pair of cargo transfer facilities to be built adjacent to the south end of the port property — would sabotage already stressed local roadways and cripple the flow of commerce through the port.
Such is the crux of the debate that currently has the blue collar community that shares a peninsula with the historic City of Charleston squaring off against a host of state, federal and even local government entities.
Seen from the vantage of Google Earth, far from the “smoking guns,” fiery letters and inflamed rhetoric that have come to define the dispute, it’s clear both the City of North Charleston and the City of Charleston have a significant rail infrastructure problem.
It’s not just a matter of land constraints, real and huge as they are. Judged from the vantage point of a satellite photo, the simple physics of moving vast numbers of additional trains in and out of the neck area would be an awesome undertaking — and that’s provided there are no unanticipated glitches, day in and day out.
That’s why the issue should matter to the 90% or so of the peninsula’s population that doesn’t think it has a dog in the fight: Whatever decisions are ultimately made in regard to access to the new terminal are going to affect everyone from college students and south of Broaders to residents and businesses throughout South Carolina.
Jeff McWhorter, president of South Carolina Public Railways, described some of the proposals currently being touted by Summey and others as “tantamount to trying to force trains through a bottleneck that leads to a dead end.”
His particular concern is a proposal for the CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads to have access to the new terminal by building two, separate [container transfer] facilities, on the Macalloy and the adjacent Promenade sites near Shipyard Creek.
“Not only would it lead to tying up the rail network through the area, but because of the logistics involved, several local intersections would be blocked repeatedly over the course of a single day,” McWhorter said.
And that ‘s to say nothing of the effect on trucks, which would likely be forced to wait a considerable amount of time to enter the Columbus Street terminal — stacking up on Morrison Drive as they did so.
“The net effect would be choking off the port, in effect, choking off commerce through our region,’ he said.
Past, as always, is prologue
The Charleston peninsula is transected by two major east-west rail lines, both owned and operated by CSX transportation and a shorter line owned by Norfolk Southern which winds its way through the proposed Noisette development in North Charleston and extends into the north end of the old navy base.
While most think of Noisette in broad terms, it is actually two distinct entities with different ownership structures. First, there is a 3,000-acre master planned community that encompasses guidelines for sustainable redevelopment, and then there’s the 340-acre, mixed-use urban revitalization called the Navy Yard at Noisette, which is owned by the Noisette Company, LLC.
The only project outside the Navy Yard that Noisette manages, through a contract with the City of North Charleston, is Oak Terrace Preserve, a “green” neighborhood that has received numerous accolades from groups involved in the sustainability movement. The Company does not own any land outside the Navy Yard.
Other private projects, including the Beach Company’s Garco Park, and I’on Group’s Mixson, are in the early stages of redeveloping formerly blighted neighborhoods in the City.
There are also a few smaller stretches of track, running north-south, that serve private commercial interests. The most significant of these, in terms of current rail traffic is Kinder Morgan, which transports coal from its Cooper River location to power plants in the Upstate and Pee Dee.
By contract, Norfolk Southern is allowed to use the more central of CSX’s lines to access Charleston’s downtown port terminals. CSX, however, has been zealous in protecting its exclusive right to the line that extends to the Macalloy property.
“It’s a perfectly understandable position,” McWhorter said. “Imagine you had a Piggly Wiggly, and all of a sudden, public officials came along and said, ‘Sorry, but you have to provide shelf space to Food Lion too.”
For much of the past year, McWhorter and others have been trying to trying to resolve the impasse, but they’ve made little headway — at least in regard to the CSX allowing Norfolk Southern equal access over their line to the south side of the Navy base property.
As an alternative, Norfolk Southern has proposed the development of a container transfer facility on the planned site of the Clemson Restoration Institute, which would serve both railroads (accessing the site from the north), and would be operated by South Carolina Public Rail.
“Both Norfolk Southern and CSX are agreeable to a single [facility] operated by Public Rail that would serve them both,’ McWhorter said. “CSX, to my knowledge, has not given any opinion on the Clemson site.”
Summey has. In fact, he’s already arguing those party to these discussions missed a key point. North Charleston has yet to fully convey the property to Clemson, he said, and he intends to hold that process up for as long as it takes to resolve the rail dispute to his satisfaction.
Anyone wanting to get an earful from Summey need only utter the phrase “north access” to get him going.
“I told them no,” he said. “I don’t know why they don’t believe me.”
To Summey, the proposal to have trains leave the north end of the new port terminal is one part conspiracy, one part disrespect and one part “a sign of a lack in thoughtful planning.”
He also sees it as the South Carolina State Ports Authority reneging on a deal — codified in a 15-page memorandum of understanding — the guaranteed North Charleston wouldn’t object to the federal permitting of the Navy base project.
“Why agree to a memorandum of understanding with the port if that agreement wasn’t going to protect the City of North Charleston?” he said. “And why is everybody talking about these matters and making plans and filing legislation without even talking to us.”
At Summey’s direction, through the filing of a series of Freedom of Information Act requests with state agencies and other means, the city has been seeking to find out exactly who has been discussing the north access option and when.
Within days of declaring he was about to come into a “smoking gun” to show the port authority’s involvement, Summey was brandishing a very brief e-mail sent by port lobbyist Barbara Melvin to a member of U.S. Rep. Henry Brown’s staff. The e-mail mentions the debate over dual access to the Navy base and possible alternative sites for a transfer facility.
Melvin makes it clear that if the proposal reaches the funding stage, the ports authority shouldn’t be the entity requesting the funds. Otherwise, the authority would run the risk of inspiring North Charleston wrath.
“The sad thing is, if you can’t trust your government, who can you trust?” Summey said.
Parsing the language of the memorandum of understanding has almost become a preoccupation of those involved in the debate. For instance, the MOU acknowledges that “it is recognized by both parties that a marine terminal facility generally cannot operate efficiently without adequate highway and rail access. “
The city and South Carolina State Ports Authority then go on to agree to approach the state General Assembly with regard to the highway and rail infrastructure needed to provide access to and from the city and the SPA properties.
Finally, and in the most critical line in the document, the state ports authority acknowledges the City of North Charleston “does not want [the authority] to utilize rail access from the north end of the property, and the [authority] will use rail access exclusively from the south end of the property.
To Summey, that passage is ironclad. It’s the heart of the whole deal.
“Quite honestly, if they try to back out of this agreement now, North Charleston will fight it in every way that it can,” he said. “Our whole redevelopment vision was predicated on that memorandum. Now, all of a sudden, this.”
But McWhorter said there was one huge flaw in crafting of that agreement. Neither railroad was a party to or even consulted before the agreement was signed. No one ever asked the railroad’s opinion on how best to serve the new terminal and what technical challenges might be encountered if one route where chosen over another.
Further, neither the port nor the city have direct authority over the railroads, which are private corporations, and no matter what the ultimate outcome of the current dispute is, neither will be the railroads’ customers.
It is the shipping lines who call on the port that will contract directly with the railroads, and how much they utilize those services— not to mention how much of their cargo passes through the Port of Charleston to get to them — is entirely dependent on the railroads’ strategy, marketing, and the efficiency of the rail service being offered.
In the path of progress
The current fracas occurs against a backdrop of longstanding complaints by environmentalists and community activists who have argued and worried about the new terminal’s affect on local air quality and traffic.
At the same time, the economic developers — particularly in the mid-state region — have been looking for ways to bolster their own community’s fortunes by effectively becoming outposts for the efficient movement of goods to market.
Historically, the Port of Charleston has always been largely a truck-centric port. Its largest existing terminal, the Wando Welch in Mount Pleasant, has no rail linkage, and it was no surprise that the permit application for the Navy base terminal did not include a provision for on-dock rail at the new facility.
But one shouldn’t assume a rail plan is completely absent from the EIS that underlies the federal terminal’s federal permit.
In fact, the plan outlined in the EIS is very much a continuance of practices in place today: utilizing short truck trips between the new terminal and the existing CSX and Norfolk Southern cargo transfer yards. CSX’s yard is located near Montague Avenue in North Charleston, while Norfolk Southern’s Seven Mile site is a few miles further to the west.
“We anticipate between 20% and 25% of all the containers will be moved by rail through one of these two sites,’ said Byron Miller, the spokesman for the ports authority. “For economic and logistical reasons, this has been the plan from the beginning.”
But McWhorter said that scenario, historically, has proven to be a significant factor in compounding traffic issues up and down interstate-26.
“Most shippers figure, If I have to put it on a truck any way, I might as well have the truck take it all the way — after all, much of the cargo that passes through the Port of Charleston stays within the state anyway,” McWhorter said.
Entrepreneurs have long considered the Macalloy property, the former Superfund site that sits directly next to the new terminal (and also happens to be adjacent to CSX’s current cargo transfer facility), to be a prime location for an expanded freight transfer operation.
Developer Robert Clement, a member of the partnership that owns the property, has been working closely with CSX to bring that vision for the property to fruition. But as far as joint use of the facility by both railroads was concerned, Clement said the issue would have to be resolved by the railroads.
Then, last month, he floated another possible solution: The development of the Ginn Company’s 180-acre Promenade property — located on the other side of the Macalloy property — into a noncontainerized break bulk cargo terminal, a transfer facility to serve Norfolk Southern, a warehouse and distribution center park, or a combination of all two or more of those elements.
Clement , a savvy business man, wasn’t blue-skying it, however; before he approached Summey and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley with the proposal, he’d already had a nationally respected transportation consultant review it.
Summey has publicly embraced the concept. Riley has indicated that the idea warrants further exploration.
But McWhorter, who would actually have to deal with the reality of moving trains — or more accurately, portions of trains, given their size — on and off the site, believes the proposal is rife with operational inefficiencies and other challenges.
To begin with, there’s the reported $100 million asking price for the site. “The state would be hard-pressed to explain such expenditure for the benefit of a single private company,” he said.
Then there’s the fact that Norfolk Southern doesn’t have any way to access the site. A spur would have to be built to forge a direct connection, and then there’s the matter of the 1,200 to 1,400 foot bridge that would have to be built to get the train cars over a marsh separating the Promenade site from South Carolina Public Rail’s switching yard along East Bay Street.
And therein lay perhaps the biggest problem with the proposal of all — a couple of simple matters Einstein used to grapple with: Space and time.
Today the average container-bearing train falls somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 feet long, with projections that once international trade begins to ramp up again in earnest, the railroads will opt for trains of between 6,000 and 8,000 feet long.
The longest track in the South Carolina Public Rail Yard which runs along East Bay Street, is a mere 1,800 feet.
In order to utilize the Promenade site, then, a few things would have to occur. First, after traveling through North Charleston at about five miles per hour due to speed restrictions, the train would pull up to the track switching area near Morrison Drive and stop.
Because of jurisdictional regulations, the Norfolk Southern crew would leave the train, and South Carolina Public rail employees would board the train and begin the process of grabbing a section of the train, pulling it into the public rail yard, and then shoving it over the bridge onto the Promenade site, repeated the process, back and forth, until the entire train is reassembled.
But that process can’t be done without precipitating several difficulties. First — and this is borne out by an analysis of the site from the vantage point of Google Earth — even a 5,000 to 6,000 foot train would block the intersections at Immigration, Romney, Brigade and Meeting Streets for an undetermined amount of time.
All that switching back and forth between different rails to move the train sections would also cause delays at the entrance of the Columbus Street terminal, causing trucks to get back up on Morrison Drive.
McWhorter said as he understands it, the proposal would call for the creation of four to six of these trains a day. In the meantime, provisions would also have to be made to accommodate the daily train that moves BMWs between port and the automaker’s facilities in the Upstate, as well as other, routine, but smaller train operations.
“Frankly, we just don’t have the capacity to accommodate that much activity, every time we built one of those trains, no other traffic would be able to get into the port,” McWhorter said. “That’s why I likened the scenario to a bottleneck. And like I said, if there’s one hiccup, you shut everything down.’”
Access from the north would relieve the bottleneck, he said.
But that’s not to suggest McWhorter was unsympathetic to Summey’s position.
“He’s clearly trying to protect his constituents and do what he believes to be right for North Charleston,” McWhorter said.
That said, McWhorter believes there are very compelling reason why access to and from the north is the best of all proposals. First, the rail infrastructure exists, al beit in the form of 1930s-era tracks which would have to be replaced by modern steel to accommodate the heavy loads.
“That’s not such a big deal, in the scheme of things,’ McWhorter said. “The problem is the existing tracks run right through the middle of Noisette.”
Pointing to the route on a large map, he added, “We don’t want it there either.”
McWhorter said one proposal would be to relocate the track, having it effectively skirt around the perimeter of Noisette. And the work wouldn’t entirely be for the benefit of the developer: The current track has a 33 degree curvature in it, an accessible feature in the era of smaller train cars, that would need to be removed to accommodate the new traffic.
McWhorter said other proposals for using the north access or the Clemson site, also included revising the plans for developing both the Noisette and Macalloy sites, turning them into distribution and warehouse centers that would boost the city’s tax revenue while reducing the demand for city services.
When that proposal was presented to Summey, he flatly rejected it, saying that all “north access” rail plans would disturb the city’s longstanding and long range redevelopment plans.
State lawmakers even went so far as to offer to convey the ports authority’s Veteran’s terminal to North Charleston in exchange for his agreeing to allow Norfolk Southern to access the former Navy base property through the northern end.
Again, Summey said no.
John Nott, president and CEO the Noisette Company, has also strongly rejected that proposal and any proposal that includes access to the new terminal from the north. In a fiery May 5 letter to Senator Glenn McConnell, President Pro Tem of the state Senate, and Bobby Harrell Jr., speaker of the S.C. House, Knott warns that any attempt by the legislature to force through such a plan would result in costly and protracted litigation.
He cited the fact that he’s already engaged in protracted litigation with the Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority regarding South Carolina’s right to use rail lines that pass through the property. The authority is the entity charged with brokering the division of the old Navy base for redevelopment.
In his fight with the agency, Knott argues that South Carolina has no right to use the line, and that in fact, it should be entirely pulled up to facilitate his redevelopment plans. Knott said if he right, then various pieces of legislation concerning the use of the tracks for access to the new terminal, “constitute a bald, unconstitutional taking of private property without just compensation.”
Despite this renewed proclamation of his longstanding and well known position, state lawmakers nevertheless advanced a proposal — through an amendment tucked deep inside the proposed state budget — to transfer the property rights of the rail line into the north end of the Navy base to the S.C. Department of Commerce.
Sen. Larry Grooms, who sponsored the amendment, described it as something of an insurance policy, preserving the state’s right to operate a rail line out of the north end of the navy base terminal in the event a compromise between Norfolk Southern and CSX can’t be reached.
Knott also recalled that the ports authority’s federal permit was based on an environmental impact statement that “unequivocally states the new terminal will not be served by rail.”
As a result, he said, there’s a very real possibility that a federal court could enjoin the ports authority from further development activity at the Navy based until the EIS is revisited and the rail impacts considered.
Skirmish breaks out on another front
Just as Knott was putting pen to paper, Summey’s war opened on an entirely new front.
Fresh from securing Melvin’s e-mail, Summey learned that Orangeburg County has filed a request seeking $278 million in federal funds for the construction of an intermodal facility in Orangeburg.
If that would seem only vaguely connected to going’s on here, the proposal, which was sent to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House majority Whip, also requested money for a separate intermodal facility in North Charleston.
The issue appeared to blindside Gregg Robinson, executive director of the Orangeburg County Development Commission, who began fielding phone calls regarding Summey’s response to this news before he received any direct communications from the City of North Charleston.
“I like Summey and would love to have a dialogue with him about this,” said Robinson, who has been fostering the development of a Global Logistics Triangle in Orangeburg for much of the past decade.
Plans for an intermodal facility to serve the triangle have been in the works for years, and in fact, intermodal facilities have been featured in large scale development plans promoted by first Carolinks, and now Dubai-based Jafza South Carolina.
The facility, as well as its connection to Charleston’s ports, was also spelled out in a lengthy White paper distributed to lawmakers in Washington by Orangeburg and Dorchester Counties several weeks ago.
Robinson said in light of the “unprecedented opportunity’ of having access to a considerable amount of federal stimulus money, it would have been fool-hardy not to put in an application.
“And like any economic development director in any of the state’s 46 counties, I reached out to Commerce and to South Carolina Public rail to determine the best and most efficient way to put this funding request forward,” he said.
“Stimulus funding is a golden opportunity to solve issues related to infrastructure and to solve issues related to jobs — two very critical issues in our community,” Robinson continued. “In no way did we intend to dictate anything to North Charleston.”
McWhorter said the proposal sought money for the construction of two intermodal facilities in North Charleston, one at the Clemson site and the other at the Macalloy site.
It also included a request for funds to build rail overpasses in North Charleston to accommodate the north access to the navy terminal, and money for Public Railways to purchase a CSX rail line that runs into Orangeburg County.
McWhorter said inclusion of both Charleston and Orangeburg related projects in the proposal sent to Clyburn was merely a way to streamline requests for funding. He also suggested, as have others, that both the Global Logistics Triangle and Jafza’s project would be adversely impacted if the rail situation isn’t satisfactory resolved in North Charleston.
Robinson expressed similar concerns.
“The Port of Charleston is a vital economic engine, not just for the three counties and the municipalities that directly surround it, but for all of South Carolina’s 46 counties,” he said. “If we don’t do everything we can to work together and bolster the port’s competitive position, every county and every county’s economic development initiatives will suffer.”
But Chuck Heath, managing director of Jafza International, said rail is not a high priority for Jafza South Carolina in the near term.
“Eventually, rail will be a must,” he said. “But until there is a certain density of possible rail cargo, it makes no sense to develop it further… that is, unless we can develop it as a regional inland port at the Global Logistics Triangle to relieve congestions in downtown Charleston.”
When it comes to rail and the Orangeburg connection, Heath said the initiative is really about coming up with a “longer term alternative to reinvesting in upgrading Interstate-26.”
Robinson said he was drafting his own letter to Summey in order to clarify Orangeburg’s position.
“Even if we continue to disagree on the specifics of a proposal, I think it is important to open all the lines of dialogue that we can,” Robinson said. “The situation has gotten pretty muddy, but it is not insurmountable.”
How long the debate and exchanging of letters will go on is anybody’s guess. Some say two weeks, some say months. Summey for one, doesn’t feel that there’s any reason to rush into a compromise.
“You know, just the other day, I drove by the port terminals, and it really is the saddest thing,” he said. “The terminals are largely empty. So it’s not like there’s this huge demand for rail access today. It’s not as if we don’t have time to work this out.”