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The meeting on the scope of an environmental impact statement for the rail yard planned on the former Navy base is scheduled for Thursday at the Chicora School of Communications (the former McNair Elementary School), 3795 Spruill Ave., North Charleston. It will start at 5:30 p.m. with a 90-minute drop-in time when the Army Corps of Engineers, Palmetto Railways and a third-party contractor will be available to answer questions about the plan. Formal statements begin at 7 p.m.
For more details online, visit navybaseictf.com.
Plans for a new rail yard that could cost upwards of $180 million and change rail routes and roads in North Charleston will be laid out this week with details few residents have seen.
The Navy Base Intermodal Facility, as the project is known, is a 90-acre rail yard where shipping containers will be transferred between trucks and trains on the former Navy base in North Charleston, where a new container port is under construction.
Trains loaded with hundreds of 40-foot-long shipping containers would get to and from the facility using a combination of new and existing rail lines that would exit the base property at McMillan Avenue. Heading north next to Spruill Avenue, the rail traffic would split onto lines serving Norfolk Southern and CSX, just below Bexley Street.
North Charleston and the state were embroiled in litigation for years over the rail plan, with the city trying to prevent rail freight traffic from heading north from the former base toward the Park Circle area.
The city and state settled the litigation at the end of 2012, with the city receiving land and money as part of the deal, and North Charleston is not contesting the current plan.
North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson said the city does not plan to submit comments at an Army Corps of Engineers meeting Thursday that will help determine the scope of the environmental review.
“For us, we will be looking at what the corps produces during the environmental impact statement process,” Ryan said.
Some City Council members do have concerns, however.
Bob King represents the Park Circle area, and remains concerned that the rail yard plan will put more freight trains on tracks through the area, including the Norfolk Southern line that crosses North Rhett Avenue just south of Interstate 526, causing traffic back-ups.
King said he wants to know why Norfolk Southern and competitor CSX can’t instead share a CSX-owned line that skirts the area.
Palmetto Railways, a division of the S.C. Department of Commerce, is in charge of the rail yard plan.
Palmetto Railways President & CEO Jeff McWhorter said he often is asked why the two competing railroad companies can’t share tracks more than they already do.
“It’s like asking why I can’t use my neighbor’s car, or their driveway,” he said Friday.
McWhorter said Palmetto Railways is working on measures to reduce problems where rail lines cross major roads, including North Rhett.
“Norfolk Southern has committed to upgrading that line, to increase the speed,” he said. Also, Palmetto Railways is working to get more switches automated, so that trains don’t have to stop and wait for switches to be changed manually.
“This really is a great opportunity to address some of those things,” he said.
The city and Palmetto Railways agreed, in the 2012 rail settlement, to conduct a comprehensive study of rail and road traffic related to the port. That study has not started, and will overlap the Corps of Engineers review, which also will consider transportation.
Some large roads, like the McMillan Avenue entrance to the Navy base area, would be demolished under Palmetto Railways’ plan. Other roads, some with overpasses, would be built on the former base. And a long noise barrier wall would be erected between the rail yard and adjacent residential neighborhood Chicora Place.
Process into 2015?
The potential impacts of the plan, from air and water quality to socioeconomics and environmental justice, will be studied by the Corps of Engineers to develop an environmental impact statement — a key federal review — in a process that could last into 2015.
“You’re dealing with social, economic and environmental impacts for communities,” said city Councilman Michael Brown, whose district includes Chicora Place.
“Getting in on the ground floor, at this meeting on the 14th, is needed,” he said. “I’ve been talking to community presidents and residents about the issues involved.”
The “scoping” meeting on Thursday will be the public’s first opportunity to learn more and get involved.
A separate environmental impact statement for the new port under construction at the south end of the former Navy base was completed in 2006, and the review process for the rail yard will not consider the port itself or the primary port access roads.
“People are confused about why that (rail yard) wasn’t looked at during the old EIS (for the port),” said corps Public Affairs Specialist Sean McBride. “There was no railway project proposed at the time, so we couldn’t consider it.”
The scoping meeting will help the corps identify concerns and issues that need to be addressed. About a year later, a draft report should be completed, and it would be put before the public for comments, with a final report anticipated in 2015.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552
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